Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with J. Carlyle Sitterson, November 4 and 6, 1987. Interview L-0030. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Tensions between the UNC student body and administration over the Speaker Ban

Sitterson discusses his position as UNC Chancellor on the Speaker Ban law, which prevented Communist affiliated people from speaking at state universities. A lawsuit emerged of the student body's frustration with UNC administration's handling of speaker choices. Sitterson argues that his reluctant position resulted from tensions with his superiors, the Board of Trustees. The friction among school officials recurs throughout the interview.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with J. Carlyle Sitterson, November 4 and 6, 1987. Interview L-0030. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

J. CARLYLE SITTERSON:
But that just wasn't to be. The Speaker Ban thing had been, of course, a major source of tension for the preceding two years. There was an intensity about the thing. As you know we had the governor set up a special commission. We had a special session of the legislature. They had modified but not repealed the Speaker Ban Law. They had then put the responsibility on the institutions to develop various kinds of procedures for dealing with visiting speakers, etc. which we were in the process of doing at that time, just as I came in. One thing that ought to be clear about this, and it's confusing to a lot of people, that is, in the fall of 1965 when I was still vice chancellor, just before the change, just before Sharp resigned, the invitation came from various groups to invite the same two speakers who had already been turned down under the original law. The petitioners claimed that it was a new situation because they said this special session had now passed amending legislation that put it in the hands of the institutions. So what we did, and I participated strongly in that with Sharp, was to recommend to the executive committee of the Board of Trustees that these two speakers be permitted to come and speak. In fact, I prepared, at the chancellor's request, the presentation of the kind of structure that we would do, in which we would have somebody on the other side, and we'd have a panel discussion that would assure… A lot of people said, you know, that you'd just let these people come in and indoctrinate people, see. That was one of the…
PAMELA DEAN:
Right.
J. CARLYLE SITTERSON:
So we said we'll obviate that by having both sides present for discussion. Well, the trustees were very wary of this. They were very wary of immediately taking action as soon as the thing was amended to overturn the decision which had already been made. So they were sensitive. I think it's hard for us in Chapel Hill, we're kind of insulated. It's hard for us to realize how sensitive they are to forces, you know, around that get to them and that kind of thing. When we presented this proposal to the executive committee, they debated it. Oh gosh, they debated it for hours. Then they recessed and came back again but they said no. The reasoning was they had not formulated the various procedures which they were authorized to do.
PAMELA DEAN:
And they didn't want to jump in and make decisions without the basis of…
J. CARLYLE SITTERSON:
That's right. So then they made all these, that's when the trustees did establish all these procedures. That would have been between February and May. All this was going on. Well now, soon as they got all of the procedures, and under that procedure you had to have a faculty-student committee to review all persons who fell in this category of speakers who were either communist or had taken the Fifth Amendment, those two categories, of which both Aptheker and Wilkinson, they fell into that category. Now, the interesting thing to me was my view of Aptheker. Well, Aptheker had come here on the eve of World War II, and I had appeared on a penel with him at that time. I mean it was no big deal from my point of view with Aptheker or Wilkerson. The absurdity of the thing was just so overwhelming but that didn't mean it was unimportant to those forces because it had become blown up into a great issue in the public mind. I've forgotten the exact date when the invitation came to me. I was then Acting Chancellor, you have to remember, so it came to me again. So we put it in the procedures. It went through the faculty-student committee. The faculty-student committee voted by a substantial majority to reject these two. The president, the incoming president of the student body was on that. He was Bob Powell, a very able young man, and a person with whom I got along very well.
PAMELA DEAN:
This was the one who was going to be president in the fall of '66?
J. CARLYLE SITTERSON:
That's correct, that's right.
PAMELA DEAN:
This is not…
J. CARLYLE SITTERSON:
Not Paul Dickson anymore.
PAMELA DEAN:
Not Paul Dickson who was the one who we were discussing before.
J. CARLYLE SITTERSON:
That's right. Now, he had not, I don't think, I'm trying to think of whether he had already taken office by May. I can't remember. Anyway, he was known to be the major figure for the student body. They recommended that it not be approved. Well, I then took it to the Advisory Committee, the Chancellor's Advisory Committee, which is a faculty committee. They likewise recommended that it not be approved. I didn't approve, setting forth what I thought was my basic reasoning. Mainly that the issue was whether or not I, as a subordinate official at the University, should override the Governing Board, which had already turned down the same invitation. During all that time I tried to get the students to invite, in fact, we announced that we would be glad to entertain invitations to communists to come, and various departments did invite several to come during that time. But that didn't deal with these two. So I don't know at exactly what point the students had decided they had had enough of all this. It had been going on now for a couple of years. Let's get it in the courts. At some point in the discussion Mac Smith, an attorney in Greensboro, also perceived this as a troublesome thing for the University and an infringement on rights and so on. How he and the students got together that I don't know, but they did. I think it was their reasoning that they said the only way this thing can be put behind us is by judicial action.
PAMELA DEAN:
How did you feel about that? What did you think of that idea?
J. CARLYLE SITTERSON:
Well, to tell you the honest truth, I think that's correct. My only complaint about it is why it hadn't started a couple of years before then, and I have raised that question. If you go back to '63, right after it was passed, I joined with a group of people here called the Friends of the University. We met privately, and we raised some funds, and we put out a documentary critique of the thing. That was in the fall of '63 and through '64, during the time that Chancellor Aycock was Chancellor. The tactics at that time were to educate the public so that the public would understand this, and then the Legislature would repeal it and so on. Well, that's very good ideally, but I guarantee, you get out in the public domain and try to educate in an environment, mental environment, that was present at that time and try to educate them to this… Another thing I think we have to recognize is that this University, this state, and the South were going through some very profound changes. Many people were fearful of what was… And of course, there's a certain kind of paranoia about communism in America anyway, and they say "Well, maybe communists are involved in all this kind of change." It was startling, startling to them, you see, and I just think trying to get the public at large to take a position, that you and I deem to be really hardly controversial, is not quite so easy, and we didn't really succeed at it. We succeeded to a certain degree, but we didn't get to the point where the legislature was willing to actually repeal that. And they never did. The courts overturned it, and that's what happened.
PAMELA DEAN:
Chapel Hill has always been seen as the hotbed of liberalism in North Carolina and seen with both a mixture, I think, of pride and fear, anxiety.
J. CARLYLE SITTERSON:
Pride and also uneasiness. That's right, that's correct. It's always been that way.
PAMELA DEAN:
And this was another example of it.
J. CARLYLE SITTERSON:
It doesn't really mean that Chapel Hill as the University is so far out in left field at all. It just means that in the society and environment in which it functions, it's always been ahead of the society at large, and it would be very sad if it were not.
PAMELA DEAN:
Well, it's function is to educate, not just students, is what your suggesting, I think.
J. CARLYLE SITTERSON:
That's right. Take the history of Chapel Hill and the University together. That's been true. Well, let's see now, have we, do we need to…
PAMELA DEAN:
One point I want to clarify. The way you saw your role in this was, and your objection to permitting these two speakers to speak, was a matter of procedure and hierarchy of the University. It was not on the issue itself in any way.
J. CARLYLE SITTERSON:
No, that's correct. That's absolutely right. So far as those two were concerned, again, as I intimated, I couldn't put all this in writing, but as I intimated to them, I said it isn't even these two speakers that I object to, it's the timing of the thing. What action I take would be clearly perceived to be a conflict between me and the Governing Board.