The dangerous and controversial speakers of 1900 at the University of Michigan Law School

August 13

Arthur F. Mullen was a Nebraska Catholic lawyer who won the tremendously important civil liberties case Meyer v. Nebraska in 1923, overturning a ban on the teaching of modern foreign languages to children in private and public schools. His autobiography, Western Democrat (1940), includes his years as a law student at the University of Michigan at the turn of the century. His main teachers were the great Harry Hutchins (namesake of today’s classroom building) and Floyd Mechem. Always interested in politics, Mullen joined the University students’ club which invited speakers to campus. “The nation was seething with ideas and ideals of freedom. Altgeld, Bryan, Ben Tillman, Eugene V. Debs were names with which to conjure the emotions of aspiring youth,” he recalled.

The club invited America’s leading socialist, Eugene V. Debs, to speak. But University President James B. Angell refused to allow Debs to use a campus auditorium. So  Mullen did some research, and found that the University’s Newberry Hall “had been endowed by a man who had made the provision in his gift that it would always be open to anyone with a message.”

John H. Newberry once heard the anti-slavery orator Wendell Phillips speak at the Lutheran Church, after the University had refused to allow him on campus. “The crowd of students had taken out the windows so that people outside the church could hear the great Abolitionist. Newberry had been so impressed by the incident that he had determined that never again should any speaker in a cause be without adequate rostrum in Ann Arbor,” Mullen explained.

So at Newberry Hall, “Debs spoke to a large and enthusiastic crowd who were as much stirred by their victory over constituted and oppressive authority as they were by his words.”

Next in the speakers that year was “General John B. Gordon, the one-armed veteran of the Confederacy.” In the spirit of reconciliation, he was introduced by a former Union general. His speech about the Last Days of the Confederacy was grave and unemotional, “arousing us by virtue of what he was rather than what he said.”

Mullen’s favorite speaker by far was a Democratic U.S. Representative from Missouri, Champ Clark. He would later become Speaker of the House. In 1912, Clark entered the Democratic National Convention with the support of the majority of delegates. But at the time, the Democrats required a 2/3 majority for the presidential nomination, which eventually went to Woodrow Wilson, whose terrible presidency continues to harm America even to this day. The young Mullen thought that Rep. Clark was wonderful: “He represented to me a type of democracy [i.e., the Democratic Party] for which I was willing to forego Populism.”

During the second decade of 20th century, Clark and Debs would reach their peak of political influence. Much greater in political influence in 1900 was another speaker. He would become the founding father of federal campaign finance law, namesake of the 1907 statute barring corporate contributions to federal campaigns. But for Senator Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman (D-S.C.) the leading cause to which he always and ardently devoted himself was violent racism.

In McDonald v. Chicago, Justice Thomas’s concurring opinion recounted the Hamburg (S.C.) Massacre of 1876:

There, a white citizen militia sought out and murdered a troop of black militiamen for no other reason than that they had dared to conduct a celebratory Fourth of July parade through their mostly black town. The white militia commander, “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, later described this massacre with pride:  “[T]he leading white men of Edgefield” had decided “to seize the first opportunity that the negroes might offer them to provoke a riot and teach the negroes a lesson by having the whites demonstrate their superiority by killing as many of them as was justifiable.” S. Kantrowitz, Ben Tillman & the Reconstruction of White Supremacy 67 (2000) (ellipsis, brackets, and internal quotation marks omitted). None of the perpetrators of the Hamburg murders was ever brought to justice.

Organized terrorism like that perpetuated by Tillman and his cohorts proliferated in the absence of federal enforcement of constitutional rights.

After four years as Governor of South Carolina, Tillman in 1900 was serving his first term in the Senate. He would remain in the Senate until his death in 1918. Mullen recounted that on the Michigan campus, Senator Tillman “brought the fireworks”:

I remember that I did not watch him as he talked, but kept my eyes on a young Negro, a youth named Honesty, who helped to nurse me when I had been ill. I was so sorry for him as Tillman made protest against equal suffrage for the Negro race in the United States that I must have missed much of Tillman’s oratorical effect. Most of his audience didn’t, for after the speech a mob went out and burned down the house of a Negro family in the town.

David Kopel is Research Director, Independence Institute, Denver, Colorado; Associate Policy Analyst, Cato Institute, Washington, D.C; and Adjunct professor of advanced constitutional law, Denver University, Sturm College of Law. He is author of 15 books and 90 scholarly journal articles.
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