“Some of your actions tonight have helped me get a lot of votes …”
Given what we’ve seen so far in this presidential election year, you might be inclined to conclude that a guy named Trump had addressed the above quote to protesters at one of his campaign rallies, before or after he had called for them to be thrown out.
Turns out, however, that these words were spoken more than 46 years ago, and the man who said them was Alabama’s only four-time governor, George C. Wallace.
The setting was Memorial (now Coleman) Coliseum, on the evening of March 16, 1970, at the University of Alabama. Wallace, who had run for president as a third-party candidate in 1968, was running for what would be a second-term as Alabama’s governor, and he had come to UA as part of the campus speakers’ program, known as Emphasis.
As originally planned, the evening was to have included remarks by the political radical/comedian Abbie Hoffman, who had been a defendant in a sensational trial linked to disturbances at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Earlier in the month, UA President David Mathews had decided that Hoffman could not come. The move prompted protests and a lawsuit, a lot of debate about the right of free speech, and it led to several hundred students who would have preferred to hear Hoffman speak showing up to heckle Wallace’s remarks — being chastised for violating his free speech rights — and finally with the playing of a taped speech by Hoffman at another location.
So why go back to an historical event that happened before about a third of Alabama’s population was even born?
Well, because both here, and around the nation, we still are arguing over the right of someone to say or show something or where they say it or show it, or when they can do so.
We have seen attacks on Trump supporters in California, protests at the University of Alabama in Huntsville over the selection of Alabama U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, a vocal supporter of Trump’s presidential bid, as the commencement speaker.
At Scripps College in California, students and faculty challenged the selection of former Clinton Administration Secretary of State Madeleine Albright as graduation speaker because they said foreign policy positions taken during her time had left her with “blood on her hands.”
During his commencement address at Rutgers University in New Jersey, President Obama said he disagreed with Rutgers students who protested the 2014 commencement speaking invitation to former Secretary of State (and Birmingham native) Condoleezza Rice, who chose not to come.
According to the Washington Post, Obama said “democracy demands that Americans listen to one another.” He added, “If you disagree with someone, bring them in,” he added.
If you think things in the country are turbulent now — and there are plenty of reasons to think that way — things were also turbulent during the period of the Wallace-Hoffman episode.
I know. I was there. It was my senior year at UA, and I was chair of the Emphasis speakers’ program.
Though the institution of a lottery kept a lot of us out of the military draft, people were still getting drafted to go fight the war in Vietnam, and more than 1,200 Alabamians, including one of my freshman year dorm neighbors, would die in that conflict. Even here, women’s and environmental movements were in their nascent stages, and artists were testing long-accepted cultural boundaries.
In Chicago, which had been rocked by protest demonstrations and violence during the 1968 Democratic convention, Hoffman, a founder of the Youth International Party (its members were known as Yippies), his Yippie pal Jerry Rubin and other defendants were on trial for their alleged roles in the disorder. The trial became a raucous spectacle, and before the year was out, Hoffman ultimately was convicted of crossing state lines to incite a riot, but the conviction was overturned and he never did any jail time.
Alabama and UA were also changing dramatically because of court cases and civil rights legislation that had been passed earlier in the decade, but court-ordered busing to racially integrate schools was a hot issue in the 1970 gubernatorial campaign.
On campus, the year would be marked by a series of noteworthy events, social and political, before the Hoffman controversy erupted. Students and first-year president Mathews faced off over Sunday rock concerts in the historic Woods Quadrangle. The three finalists in that fall’s homecoming queen election included, for the first time, a black student, and the winner, another first, was of Japanese ancestry.
Women students were pushing to eliminate the curfews that applied to them. There were students who belonged to what was known as the counterculture, and some of them had protested at ROTC exercises and had founded an Experimental College to provide students with more “relevant” courses than the ones they were getting from the university catalogue.
Meanwhile, a student-faculty group was gathering weekly on the steps of the old Union Building to protest the Vietnam War. In the early fall, there was a program on Vietnam in Foster Auditorium at which the speakers were former GOP U.S. Rep. Jim Martin and Maryland’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Joseph Tydings. When Martin rhetorically asked if the U.S. should pull out of Vietnam, the old hall erupted in applause. In December, UA trustee and then-Postmaster Gen. Winton Blount, who had recently been to Vietnam, spoke at an Emphasis program in Morgan Auditorium. Chanting protesters had been outside the auditorium, and inside, where the tension was palpable, a student unsuccessfully sought to present Blount a large stamp that he had fashioned to commemorate the killing of hundreds of unarmed civilians at a Vietnamese hamlet known as My Lai.
“What if he takes his clothes off?”
While the fall semester was running its course, we at Emphasis were lining up speakers for the coming spring term. When a booking agency listed Abbie Hoffman as a possibility, I was interested. At the same time, those of us who were involved in the speaker approval process agreed that we needed to ideologically balance the Hoffman program, and we fashioned a lineup that, in retrospect, might have been quite difficult to manage. It would feature former U.S. Sen. Wayne Morse, a maverick Republican from Oregon and Vietnam War opponent, and Wallace. And we hoped that Wallace would agree to debate Hoffman. He did not.
The prospect of Hoffman coming was generating a lot of discussion. A political science professor worried aloud to me one day about it, saying, “What if he takes his clothes off?”
As I’ve already indicated, we never got to see that happen, because Hoffman never appeared in the flesh. But we got to see and a hear a lot of other things, things that started after the university issued a statement that included the passage, “After studying the recent unrest that has surrounded defendants in the Chicago trial, we have indicated to the Emphasis Committee that the facilities of the university will not be available (to Hoffman).”
By that time, Morse had decided he wasn’t coming, and Wallace loomed as the only likely speaker. I announced that Emphasis was going to take legal action to enable Hoffman to speak, and the announcement made nationwide news.
The UA campus paper, The Crimson-White, put the news on the front page of its next issue, and its stories included expressions of dismay from the student body president, Warren Herlong. It also published an editorial highly critical of Mathews’ decision, saying the president had joined other speaker-banning college presidents in the state, “a frightened and easily intimidated group of men who seek to stifle open debate merely because they fear an adverse reaction from the citizenry and legislators.”
Other papers around the state editorialized in support of the Hoffman ban. The hometown Tuscaloosa News called Mathews’ move a “good decision,” saying, “Any person whose presence on campus might reasonably be expected to create difficulty and disturbance that would be materially distracting should not be permitted to use the University’s facilities.”
The Birmingham News, for which I would later work as a reporter and editor, took a similar stance. “The thought of banning the expression of a particular viewpoint is repugnant to most people, including The News,” it stated. “But there is a difference between banning a viewpoint and a particular spokesman of that viewpoint, which is what Dr. Mathews has attempted to do in the case of Abbie Hoffman.”
At my campus apartment, because of my being the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, I was receiving some personal editorials via letter from folks who were against the Hoffman appearance. One anonymous author said if he were nearby, “I’d personally kick your butt out of the state, you publicity-seeking scum!”
“The Hoffman Affair,” as it became known, had a lot of twists and turns. American Civil Liberties Union attorneys Morris Dees and Erskine Smith, who were part of our legal team, met with Mathews to try to settle the Hoffman issue. The student legislature voted to support the lawsuit, and a number of student leaders signed on as co-plaintiffs, among them: Jim Zeigler, who would win the upcoming student government presidential election and who now is state auditor.
In addition, hundreds of students sought to present a petition to Mathews at his home on the night of March 5, dozens did a sit-in outside his office the following day, and an even larger group of students and faculty met with him later that same day in Morgan Auditorium. At the session, according to the Crimson-White, Mathews said “the position we take at this time is that there is considerable evidence that this is a volatile subject, so we don’t think Hoffman should come to the University of Alabama at this time.” When asked about the possibility of violence over the Hoffman affair, he said people should be “wary of the assumption, ‘It can’t happen to us.’” He also said he feared that Alabamians around the state felt “we want to hear what is sensational rather than sound.”
Riots, fires, looting
Meanwhile, Gov. Albert Brewer, who faced a brutal gubernatorial primary fight with Wallace, made certain voters knew where he stood on the issue.
“We’re not going to open our campuses in this state to incidents that allow persons to come in and cause riots, fires, looting and destruction of private property,” Brewer said.
The Crimson-White letters page was filled with commentary , most of it critical of Mathews. A student, local radio personality (and former Weld columnist) Courtney Haden crafted a cartoon showing a prim and proper Mathews with a stubble-faced, tank top wearing rube whose pot belly bears the word “Ignorance” in large type. Three Keystone Kops are part of the backdrop, and the rube is saying, “Me and th’ rest of th’ guys think you’re doin’ a helluva job, Dr. Mathews.”
Another student named Kurt Volker scoffed at the uproar, asking, “Exactly what does one expect to gain by hearing someone lecture on how to incite a riot, throw a rock through a window or punch someone in the mouth?”
The lawsuit challenging the university’s stance on Hoffman was filed in the Middle District U.S. Court in Montgomery, and it came before U.S. District Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. Johnson already had issued some groundbreaking civil rights rulings in the past, and I think our attorneys hoped he might give us more favorable consideration than, say, some federal judges in Birmingham. Those hopes went south when Johnson transferred the case back to Birmingham federal court a few days before the program date, and any hearing on our request for an injunction would not happen until weeks later.
So, we found ourselves left with Gov. Wallace, who wanted the $1,500 fee that Emphasis had promised to pay him. But some of us, among them my landlord, then UA law student and Crimson-White managing editor Ed Still, wanted the program to also reflect the issues raised by the Hoffman Affair.
Hoffman had been calling my apartment (collect, of course) to find out what was going on. On the Sunday morning before the program, he called again, and we prevailed upon him to give a speech, about the death of free speech, that we would tape record over the telephone and and play at the Emphasis program.
After loudly puffing on what we assumed was a joint and then cooing contentedly, Hoffman started speaking and did not stop for 20 minutes. With traces of his native Massachusetts in his voice, he portrayed himself as being dead, and in a place where there were other dead or just famous people. He said he saw then-Vice President Spiro Agnew and added that his Yippie buddy Jerry was sleeping with Agnew’s daughter Kim.
He was obscene, satirical, anarchical. He said UA was “total garbage.” As for the future of “Amerika,” he sang the chorus “Hey, hey what’s that sound?” from Buffalo Springfield’s For What It’s Worth, and gave a one-word answer, “Boom!” He called Wallace “Georgie,” and mocked his sexual prowess.
The question now was, were we going to be able to play this tape on the next night at Memorial Coliseum? At the same time, because we were certain Wallace’s speech was going to be the target of protests, and we could not let those protests pass without making a point about free speech being a right available to everyone. Ed and I talked privately about what to do, and we formulated a plan.
The next morning, I notified UA officials that Emphasis had a Hoffman tape, and that it was our intention to play it. First, however, we had to get through the regular program, and it quickly became obvious that a challenging evening awaited us. A large group of students, many of whom had been part of the Hoffman protest activities, noisily occupied the front seats facing the Memorial Coliseum stage. Some of them were carrying or wearing Wallace campaign material. One hoisted a sign that said, “Weirdos for Wallace.”
Almost seven years had passed since Wallace had stood in the door of Foster Auditorium to symbolically bar the admission of black students to UA, and the campus’ population of black students was several hundred, and growing. A group of them showed up that night, and one of them was wearing a Wallace bumper sticker around his head. Another unfurled a Wallace campaign poster in which Wallace’s likeness had been altered to resemble that of Adolf Hitler.
When Wallace came onstage, he made a point to acknowledge the protestors in the crowd, and many of them, in distinctive ways, acknowledged him. A recording in university archives captures a lot of the back-and-forth, and Wallace can be heard chuckling during a lot of the exchanges. “I’ve taken on the pros, and you look like a bunch of amateurs, really,” he says early on.
Overall, Wallace used the occasion to attempt a campaign speech, and he sought to list the accomplishments of his first gubernatorial term and those in the two years his late wife Lurleen held the state’s top job. But outbursts of cheering, laughter, chanting, hollering, and hooting — at one point you hear chants of “We’re number 50!” — made it hard for him to stay on message, and so you can hear him say things like, “There’s nothing wrong with you either but a good barber couldn’t cure,” or “I’m for revolution, too, but when it’s through, you folks aren’t going to be sitting in the front row,’’ or “I tell you what: Emily Post wrote a book one time, and the name of that book is How to Behave in a Crowd. It might do for some of you to read it, you know.”
When some students holler “Up Against the Wall,” Wallace asks to hear it again, says, “Yeah, boy,” and adds, “I’m gonna recommend you be promoted to the second grade.”
Before the evening had ended, Wallace had cut his speech short, taken some questions, seen a student throw a pair of white socks toward the stage, beckoned the student to come give him the socks, then kissed the student’s hands when he did so. He also had seen a student unfurl a large poster of a pig, and when the network cameras on hand turned toward the poster and bathed it in light, a chant of “You! You! You!” began. Some members of his entourage were not happy, but Wallace seemed to take the whole thing in stride. Before leaving the stage, he threw one more barb toward his would-be tormentors and received some scattered applause in return.
“You’re looking at a fella who’s had his freedom of expression violated more than anybody in the United States,” Wallace said. “I couldn’t even make a speech here tonight as you know. I had to stop speaking tonight because of the folks who believe in free speech. They believe in free speech for everybody but you. They don’t want you to speak freely.”
Fear of ideas
Now it was Ed Still’s turn at the microphone. He mentioned the existence of the Hoffman tape. With audience members shouting, “Play it!”, he asked a university official if he could play the tape and was told he could not. He then held aloft a paperback of Hoffman’s memoir, Revolution for the Hell of It, and loudly asked — to cheers and sustained applause — when it was going to be removed from the shelves in the University Supply Store. Then he took up where Wallace had left off and addressed those who had heckled Wallace.
“Gov. Wallace is right in one thing,” Still said. “You are advocates for free speech only when it suits your own needs … Most of you people wouldn’t have gone and sat outside the president’s office if George Wallace had been told he couldn’t come because you people are two-bit phonies and most of you know it.”
“The point is, you’re just as afraid of ideas as David Mathews is,” Still added. “He’s afraid to have unpopular ideas listened to, such as Abbie Hoffman, because he doesn’t want to have a backlash from the politicians. You’re afraid to listen to George Wallace just because you don’t like him.”
The tape was subsequently played in the lobby of a woman’s dormitory, and copies were played in classrooms around campus in the remaining weeks of the semester – the same semester in which there would be marches and protests and roughhouse tactics by the Tuscaloosa police following the shootings of college students at Kent State and Jackson State universities.
Eighteen months later, another student demonstration broke out on campus, one larger than any the university had seen during the year of the Hoffman episode. However, campus officials and police were not threatened by this manifestation, because it was not a protest, just a celebration. Bear Bryant’s Crimson Tide had just gone on the road, unveiled a wishbone offense, and upset Southern Cal.
While the Tide has been winning a lot of gridiron battles of late, free speech is continually facing battles of its own, ones where the outcome is more important than the final score of a national championship football game. If you want any proof of that, go to the next Donald Trump rally here in the state and hold up a protest sign.