How One KU Student's Obsession Led To A Goldmine Of Political Expression
As a teenager, Laird Wilcox was fascinated by extremists, radicals and fringe movements, regardless of their views and objectives. He started collecting materials and attending political events, collecting leaflets, fliers, and newsletters from as many causes as he could.
That was more than fifty years ago. What's now known as the Wilcox Collection of Contemporary Political Movements includes more than 28,000 books, pamphlets and periodicals, 187 cubic feet of manuscripts and nearly 200,000 other materials. The collection, at the University of Kansas Libraries, has become a resource to researchers and authors from around the world and generations of KU professors and students.
Wilcox joined Central Standard host Gina Kaufmann on Wednesday to talk about his collection. Also on the show was Becky Schulte, KU archivist and curator of an exhibit marking fifty years since Wilcox sold his collection to the university. Here's a condensed version of their conversation:
Kaufmann: Do you remember the first thing you collected?
Wilcox: It was probably some radical left literature, some Communist Party stuff. I had an aunt and uncle who were active in the Communist Party in the Bay Area in the 1940s and ’50s. Other members of family were conservative or moderate, and didn’t agree with them. So I was sensitized to these ideas early. My father was a construction worker and traveled around the country, so I was always in a position to meet interesting people. When I was 14, I found myself in Port Arthur, Texas, where my father got me a job as an oil refinery as construction laborer. I joined my first labor union. I was also curious about right-wingers, and looked for similarities and differences.
Kaufmann: There’s a photo of an exhibit you created as a freshman at KU in 1964. That’s so young to be putting on your own exhibits.
Wilcox: I was 19. I was chairman of the Minority Opinions Forum, a student group that brought controversial speakers to campus – a variety of socialists, right-wingers, Neo-Nazis, religious people. It was very well received. Students were interested in different ideas.
Kaufmann: What do you think about KU today as a place for people to express themselves?
Wilcox: I think the campus has changed a lot. It’s a lot more inhibited. In the ’60s you could talk about anything – there were debates and discussions, I had all these different speakers. That would be very hard today. An opposition group would be out there protesting, banning it, trying to get people fired if they had views they didn’t like. It’s an intolerant place today.
Kaufmann: Becky Schulte, how did you select objects for this exhibition?
Schulte: The collection is so huge and interesting. To winnow it down to just a few cases in a room is always very difficult
Kaufmann: Is there a particular piece that’s specific to KU?
Schulte: When Laird was with the Minority Opinions Forum, he kept a scrapbook of the activities at the time. There are photographs of students protesting George Lincoln Rockwell, the leader of the American Nazi Party, who was brought in to speak. Some of the students were against his message, some of them were in favor of his right to speak. I was interested to see a proclamation by then-Chancellor (W. Clarke) Wescoe announcing to campus that Rockwell would be allowed to speak and the university was in support of hearing messages that were contrary to common beliefs.
Wilcox: I was very pleased by that. I spoke to the chancellor and he was nervous about Rockwell coming, and so was my faculty advisor. I told him this was a very important thing for the university to do, to allow this discussion and debate about what was out there — that’s part of growing up.
Kaufmann: In the photos of student protest, it looks like four guys with signs. It doesn’t look like a huge movement.
Wilcox: All of those signs were made in my basement the night before (Rockwell’s speech). They’re mostly friends of mine, who I asked to help generate interest. We were opposed to Rockwell but felt he should be able to speak. There was a general campus interest in hearing the strange and unique and bizarre. There was an existential sense of freedom you don’t see today. I wish it would come back.
Schulte: The event was very popular. It was standing room only. They had to project the sound out of the Union so others could hear.
Kaufmann: Laird, you reached out to extremist groups on both ends and asking them for materials. What did you learn?
Wilcox: I learned a great deal about the roots of political belief, why people believed the things they believed. I went on collecting trips in the ’70s and ’80s, and sometimes people brought stuff to me for the collection. There’s a lot of correspondence – I engaged in some very detailed back-and-forth with people on the right and left, probably a little more on the right because they were more interested in explaining themselves because they want to be understood.
Kaufmann: Becky, is there a piece of local resonance that stands out to you?
Schulte: The collection is national in its scope so I’m not thinking of anything locally. But there was a woman who was a member of the Communist Party in California and her papers are really interesting. Women are not as well represented in the collection. Perhaps they were not as likely to be as vocal – this was from the 1950s.
Kaufmann: There are things in the collection that would have been considered radical at a time that maybe don’t seem as radical today, while others are fringe and extreme. How do you feel about all of these things being grouped together now that history has progressed?
Wilcox: The collection is extremely valuable for researchers, scholars, and students. I had a very good time putting it together. I specialized in getting to know these little fringe groups and radical groups in ’60s. I made a lot of friends, meaning people I could talk to, who were comfortable talking to me. Right or left, I would never challenge their views, I’d just ask them to explain. That would open up a flood of things, all the influences in their lives: parents, peers, religious affiliations, people they met in college or at work. You get a very good sense of what the American people are like.