How a historian of the Civil Rights Movement lost his job
Recent open records requests for emails of professors at several universities in the Midwest have raised, one more time, the question of how free professors at public universities really are to speak out on political issues. I think of the case of Lawrence D. Reddick, who wrote an early biography of Martin Luther King Jr., helped King produce his own first book, Stride toward Freedom, and reported on the Montgomery sit-ins for Dissent. I tell how Reddick’s citizenly efforts were rewarded in the following excerpt from Divided Minds: Intellectuals and the Civil Rights Movement. –Carol Polsgrove, April 2011
Reddick thought of himself as the movement’s official historian and made a practice of attending the students’ mass meetings. The meetings did not begin until seven, but people started gathering at four to be sure of a seat, so Reddick would leave his late-afternoon class in Norman Walton’s charge and go off to the meeting. Walton himself was sympathetic to the student movement but had four children to put through school and so tried not to involve himself publicly. He did his part by sitting in Reddick’s empty classroom for the class hour (the students had all gone to the meeting, but a state spy might come around to make sure classes were being held). Walton did not mind helping Reddick out – he liked Reddick, an older man who had taken him under his wing. Reddick was something of a fitness buff, and he would come to swim at the pool where Walton coached the swim team. Reddick was clean-cut – he always wore a tie to class and a little smile. Walton never heard him laugh, but he wore that little smile, which Walton imagined smoothed the way for him when he mixed with whites at historians’ conferences.
For this dignified man, an undignified fate lay ahead. In its meeting on March 25, 1960, the state board of education ordered the college to put on probation those students who had been arrested until (according to the minutes) “such time as they might be willing to conduct themselves in such a manner worthy of readmittance to the College.” The board also ordered President Trenholm to dismiss “any and all members of the faculty of the Alabama State college who are not loyal to the College in all matters of discipline and of rules and regulations pertaining to the proper functioning of the College at all times.” State police had been studying photographs of protests to identify faculty members involved. By the time the board met on June 14, suspicion had fallen most heavily on Lawrence Reddick.
Reddick understood that the walls were closing in on him. On April 12, he wrote a letter to Trenholm asking for “something better than an annual job contract.” He asked, too, for assurance that he could “continue to discharge a few of the ordinary rights and duties of citizenship.” If he was arrested for hosting a racially mixed group visiting Montgomery, he warned Trenholm, “he would have no choice but to fight [his] way out of it on the basis of principle rather than expedience.” Trenholm could not give Reddick the assurance he wanted. In fact, in a long talk near the end of the quarter, Trenholm tried to talk him into resigning right away “for the sake of the college.” Reddick resigned the following day, but made his resignation effective August 31, after the summer term.
That was not good enough for Governor Patterson, who reported the results of an investigation of Reddick to the board on June 14. Investigators from the Department of Public Safety had encountered resistance on the part of Trenholm when they asked for Reddick’s personnel file. Understanding that his own job and perhaps the wellbeing of the college was at stake, Trenholm had finally released it. Material in that file, along with assorted debris the investigators had come up with, went into a written report. The governor handed a copy to each member of the board. The board discussed the report and approved the governor’s motion that Trenholm be ordered to fire Reddick “by sundown today.” One conscientious member voted nay, explaining, according to the minutes, “that he did not believe that any teacher or public official should be fired without a hearing and an opportunity to defend his record.”
…The report that cost Lawrence Reddick his job has disappeared, but press accounts survive. The Montgomery Advertiser gave the story a four-column headline in the lead position on the front page, “Negro Teacher Linked to Reds, Ordered Fired.” The Advertiser strung out the miscellaneous items the state investigators had come up with to make the case against Reddick:
“The file on Reddick included a photostatic copy of a newspaper article with a picture showing Reddick with Andrei Vyshinksy, the then Russian delegate to the United Nations, at a “Get Together with Russia Rally” at Madison Square Garden.
“The file quoted records of the Fulton County Bureau of Criminal Investigation in Atlanta, showing that Reddick was a speaker at a 1948 meeting of writers, a group later described by the Daily Worker as being made up of “Marxists and other anti-Fascist writers.”
“Reddick was identified further by a letter from the New York City Police Department as a lecturer at a Communist-sponsored school.”
There was no mention of Reddick’s association with Martin Luther King or of his book on King, or, for that matter, of his involvement with the sit-ins, the most immediate reason for the attack on him. There was no mention of anything in his past that would suggest he was a scholar – his degrees from Fisk and the University of Chicago, his positions of responsibility at the Schomburg and Atlanta University. All had vanished. He had been reduced to a link between Montgomery and Moscow.
The national press, relying on wire service reports, did no better. “Alabama Dismisses a Negro Educator,” the New York Times proclaimed in a brief story deep in the paper. Identifying Reddick only as head of the Alabama State College history department, the story by the Associated Press reported that Reddick had been dismissed “at the insistence of Gov. John Patterson. The Governor charged that Dr. Reddick was a Communist sympathizer.” According to another news account, the state’s report also quoted the New York Telegram “as saying that Reddick was a Communist and adding that Reddick had been fired from a position with the New York Public Library because of Communist activities,” an allegation that was simply untrue.
It was a telling, ugly moment. “It is hard for me to understand how a man with a record like this could get a job at Alabama State College,” a state press release quoted the governor as saying…Reddick responded with a statement, saying, “Gov. Patterson knows that I have never been a Communist. He knows, too, that I am not an agitator, but from time to time do make serious studies of current and historical questions.”
…Some twenty faculty members active in the movement, facing nearly certain dismissal, turned in their resignations. The board of education placed President Trenholm on what turned out to be permanent leave. The subsequent fall, students were admitted only after they signed an “oath of honor” promising to behave like ladies and gentlemen. The American Association of University Professors censured the college for denying Reddick due process; the censure would not be lifted for twenty years. The American Civil Liberties Union protested Reddick’s firing, and so did the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the NAACP, the University of Chicago’s Department of History, and the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance. A federal court of appeals ordered the expelled students reinstated on the ground that their expulsion had violated their constitutional right to due process.
The following spring, the New York City Teachers Union gave Reddick its Silver Jubilee Award “for his inspiring ‘crusade without violence’ for civil rights, intellectual freedom and human dignity.” The New York Times, reporting the ceremony at significantly greater length than it had reported Reddick’s firing, sharpened the story’s political edge by including a comment by Carey McWilliams, editor of the Nation. McWilliams “warned against the ‘new McCarthyism’ sweeping the nation and said it was a well organized movement ‘tied with the military.’”…
Lawrence Reddick got a job teaching at Coppin State Teachers College in Baltimore; he continued to think of himself as the movement’s historian, and he continued to offer advice to King. “Don’t let them pin you down on the ‘communist’ issue,” he warned King in 1963, with the wisdom born of experience.
Footnotes for this excerpt are available in Divided Minds: Intellectuals and the Civil Rights Movement, published in 2001 by W. W. Norton; this section appears on pp. 116-121. Use the following form to write to Carol Polsgrove.