Timely Queens, CCNY Exhibits Explore Rights-amid-Crisis Issues

Since September 11, 2001, the conflict between governmental anti-terrorist protocols and legislation generated by the Trade Center attack on one hand and established civil liberties on the other has been steadily intensifying. To what extent can, or should, basic rights under the Constitution—especially those assured by the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments—be altered during times of national crisis?

Drawing by Sylvia Wald, courtesy CCNY Archives.

Two timely exhibitions, one just closed and the other running until January, have cast some fascinating light on two periods in City University history when precisely this controversy was red-hot…or rather, Red hot. The two exhibits focus on different periods in the second and by far the longest-lived “Red Scare,” which began around 1940 and ran through the mid-1950s. (The more compact first “Red Scare” followed the birth of the Soviet Union, during and just after WWI.)

“McCarthyism at Queens College, 1947-1955” was facilitated by Queens College Archivist Stephen Barto and curated by two Queens students from this period, Dorothy Pita and Larry Kaplan (the latter is an emeritus professor of history at City College) and designed by another Queens grad, Alice Sprintzen. The exhibit completed a six-week run in mid-October. Under five rubrics (Assault, Intimidation, Investigation, Expulsion, and Restitution), it examined the latter part of the “Red Scare” that coincided with the intensification of the Cold War.

Among its focuses was the assault on Queens College itself and its liberal president, Paul Klapper. Left-wing activities and protests were dealt with harshly under Klapper’s conservative successor, John Theobald. By 1952, Queens faculty who pleaded the Fifth Amendment were being dismissed, citing a resolution of the N.Y. City Council (Section 903) that prohibited them from taking the Fifth. One of those dismissed, economist Vera Shlakman, was present for the exhibit’s official opening.

Years later, when the political climate changed, apologies were finally made and, in some cases, financial compensation awarded. The exhibit ends with Barto’s observation that “in the present and future, defense of academic freedom and other civil liberties must remain vigilant in America.” Barto promises further exhibits in this subject area at Queens College in the future.

On a grander scale—there are 24 panels—is “Challenges to Free Speech and Academic Freedom at City College, 1931-1942,” which is up and running in Cohen Library in the North Academic Center of City College (138th and Convent Ave.) until January 9th.
Focusing on a decade of super-heated political clashes and controversies at the City on the hill, it was curated by Dr. Carol Smith, retired faculty from the CCNY SEEK Program (and also a soon-to-be CCNY M.A. in Museum Studies), with the assistance of CCNY Archivist Sydney Van Nort.

The major focus, Smith says, is the time when “the College was labeled ‘The Little Red School House’ by William Randolph Heart’s press, because it was regarded as a stronghold of left-wing political activism.” Though there were significant anti-war sentiments at City College from the time of WWI, they culminated in on- and off-campus protests in the 1930s.

By 1935 a New York College Teachers Union was formed, and CCNY had an active chapter. Many faculty joined the Anti-Fascist Association, and others joined the Communist Party. Some joined both. Then–President Frederick Robinson reacted harshly to radical student and faculty activism. Between 1931 and 1934 he saw to the expulsion of 43 students and the suspension of 38 others. In 1936, his attempt to fire 13 faculty members evoked massive student and labor protests, which resulted in their reinstatement.

Later panels reveal moments of increasing conflict, notably the flap over the eminent philosopher Bertrand Russell in 1940. He was hired to teach in CCNY’s department of philosophy, but conservative political and religious leaders (thinking him a proponent of sexual freedom) objected, causing Mayor LaGuardia to withdraw funding.

That same year, bad news for free speech and academic freedom came with the formation by the N.Y. State Legislature of a committee charged with investigating communist subversion in the public schools and colleges. In its two-year life, the Rapp-Coudert Committee (a miniature of Congress’s House Un-American Activities Committee) caused much havoc. “City College was its main target,” says Smith. “Approximately 50 faculty and staff lost their jobs for refusing to cooperate.” Prior to the height of the McCarthyism to come, this was the largest purge of faculty for political reasons in U.S. history.

The exhibition concludes on a bittersweet note with the apology issued by the Board of Higher Education in October 1981 to the faculty and staff who had been dismissed as the result of Rapp-Coudert investigations. Better four decades late than never.

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