“The right to a free utterance of honest opinions is fundamentally right,” wrote KU alum William Allen White in his Emporia Gazette in the summer of 1922, amid times when Kansans were lining up on either side of a bitter railroad strike that pitted union workers against their employers, with the public being squeezed in between. Any “suppression” of that right, added White, qualified as dangerous and thoroughly contemptible in a free society, “so long as the opinion is orderly and temperate and decent.”
But in the mind of Kansas Republican Governor Henry J. Allen, White’s longtime friend, sometime political ally, and a former newspaperman himself, the opinions of the “Sage of Emporia” – let alone his publicly declared support of the strikers and the actions he took in their behalf – were neither orderly, nor temperate nor decent. In fact, as the governor interpreted an untested state law, they were criminal. And though it pained him greatly, Allen ended up ordering his friend’s arrest.
For placing a pro-union placard in the Gazette’s front window, White was charged with violating the state’s new anti-picketing law and conspiring with the strikers to stop the trains. Days later, on July 27, 1922, the undaunted author and newspaperman penned one of his most famous editorials in passionate defense of the inalienable right of free speech, which he called “proof of man’s kinship with God.” It was titled “To An Anxious Friend.”
In this essay, White gravely cautioned those who desired the suppression of free speech in “time of stress,” insisting that “if there is freedom, folly will die of its own poison, and the wisdom will survive.” Free expression and reason, counseled White, have never failed. “Only force and repression,” he continued, “have made wrecks in the world.” The following year, “To An Anxious Friend” garnered White the Pulitzer Prize for best editorial of 1922. It was the first time this prestigious journalism award was won by a Kansan, let alone a KU alum.
Much to his chagrin, White’s case never went to trial, since prosecutors and other high state officials seemingly lost their nerve. Thus he was not able to present his predicament as a landmark test case to determine whether the government had the authority to suppress free speech in certain times, or if that right is indeed inviolate. However, White’s fancy bit of wordsmithing catapulted Kansas to national attention. It focused the country on an essential First Amendment question as well as on the suitability of the nascent Kansas Court of Industrial Relations, a unique Sunflower State attempt to resolve disputes between capital and labor.
The clash between White and Governor Allen, plus the row over the Court of Industrial Relations, traced their origins to the First World War and the home front ramifications that resulted from that conflict. Between April 6, 1917, when the US officially became a belligerent, and November 11, 1918, when the Western Front armistice went into effect, patriotic solidarity and support for the war effort prompted management and labor in the US to operate under fairly good terms.
President Woodrow Wilson’s War Labor Policies Board formally recognized unions, helped establish more favorable working conditions, mandated equal wages for women, and compelled employers to negotiate with those unions. These concessions to labor did not come without cost. The board also prohibited strikes. As a result, some observers saw the entire arrangement as a cynical ploy to buy off workers so as to keep war-related industries running at peak capacity. Despite this statutory restraint, union membership across the nation skyrocketed, reaching a height of some four million by war’s end, a 50 percent increase over 1914.
With the resumption of peace, however, came the revival of the management-labor struggles. Grievances and mistrust boiled over most obviously in the fall of 1919 when the United Mine Workers Union (UMW), having received no satisfaction to its calls for higher wages and shorter working hours, voted to strike beginning on November 1. President Wilson immediately intervened by re-authorizing the federal wartime anti-strike rules, declaring any work stoppage illegal. That executive action cowed the national union leadership, which promptly called off the strike. But in the Sunflower State, UMW District 14 President Alexander Howat and the roughly 12,000 southeastern Kansas coal miners he represented refused to back down. They struck as planned.
By most accounts, Howat was an effective leader who enjoyed the full backing of his men. And considering the freezing winter temperatures and dwindling supplies of coal (the predominant heating fuel at this time), it was anyone’s guess which side would crack first. In an effort to buy time, and perhaps to provoke a gesture of goodwill, Governor Henry Allen asked the striking miners to produce just enough coal to “prevent suffering.” He was rebuffed. Though firmly on the side of mine operators in their dispute with the workers, the governor claimed that his major concern was with what he called “the party of the third part,” that being the people of Kansas. They were in danger of being left shivering in the no man’s land between feuding factions.
Talks having failed, Allen sought and received an order from the Kansas Supreme Court permitting him on behalf of the state to take over the coal mines and temporarily operate them in the public interest. To do this, on November 17, 1919, he empanelled a committee to oversee the endeavor and began calling for volunteers to replace the striking miners and alleviate the coal shortage.
Some 11,000 citizens offered their services. Most were completely unskilled in coal mining, but by December 1, the mines of southeastern Kansas were back in operation. (Among the volunteers were a significant number of Kansas college students, some of whom answered a halftime call at the annual KU-Missouri football game.)
Concerned that violence might befall these “scab” workers, Allen ordered a regiment of the Kansas National Guard to the region; 600 regular US Army soldiers, sent by General Leonard Wood, commander of the Missouri-based Central Division, soon joined them.
As it turned out, military protection was not needed. State control of the mines lasted a mere three weeks, during which time the amateur miners were able to extract enough coal to stave off statewide disaster. (For their work, the state provided basic accommodations and paid them $5.70 per day, roughly $60 in early twenty-first-century money.)
In late December 1919, the Kansas local of the UMW was able to reach an equitable wage settlement with its employers and the situation began to return to normal. Howat was later jailed for instigating the work stoppage, and Allen became determined to prevent another crippling strike from ever again harming the public interest.
The governor unveiled his solution at a special session of the Kansas legislature in January 1920. He sought creation of a new agency called the Kansas Court of Industrial Relations, a three-judge panel that would mediate and adjudicate management-labor disputes. The bill, called the Kansas Industrial Act, was authored by Emporia attorney W.L. Huggins, and was designed “to protect the public against the evils of industrial warfare.” This Court would be empowered to regulate working hours, fix a minimum wage, prohibit strikes, run certain industries “wherever industrial disputes jeopardized public welfare,” and most importantly, to levy criminal penalties (including prison sentences) for noncompliance.
Representatives of organized labor savaged the plan as a “cat o’ nine tails” that capital would use to flail and subjugate workers. Indeed, before being sent off to jail, Alexander Howat vehemently registered his and his workers’ opposition to the governor’s proposed scheme, accusing him of trying to destroy unions by imposing compulsory arbitration and outlawing strikes.
“But come what will and whether or not my bones rot in a prison cell I am going to fight this law with the force of 12,000 miners in Kansas,” he said. “[R]egardless of the consequences [we will] give Governor Allen cause to remember that organized labor must and will have the right to cease work at its will.”
Unfortunately, Howat had squandered much of the sympathy the public may have had for him and his cause after the seeming callousness of the coal miners during the recent winter strike. Management, for its part, was stridently opposed as well, charging that the proposed Court was an odious, unconstitutional and un-American step towards socialism. Neither position won many followers among ordinary Kansans, with many wishing a pox on both houses.
Lending his name to the bill, William Allen White (an employer who was also known as a “friend of labor”) spoke in the interests of “securing industrial peace.” Speaking to legislators, he said: “When labor and capital engage in a brawl which threatens daily processes of civilization, we are taking away the right to that brawl and saying the quarrel must be settled in the public interest…. We are not trying to throttle capital and labor in Kansas, but to emancipate them from their own strangle hold upon each other and to establish an equitable and living relation between them.” (A year later, White was less diplomatic, confiding to Allen that he did not envy the governor’s task of “wrestling with the crazy radicals on one hand and the conniving employers on the other”; they are “both stinkers,” he said.)
In the end, the bill easily passed both houses of the Kansas legislature with only a handful of dissenting votes. For White’s energetic and doubtlessly helpful advocacy in calling for this “fair umpire,” Allen offered his friend one of the three judgeships on the new Court of Industrial Relations, but White declined.
No state had ever attempted such a solution to its labor disputes and very quickly the Kansas experiment attracted national attention. As Kansas historian Robert Smith Bader put it, “the controversial Industrial Court stimulated a great deal of national comment and enhanced the Kansas reputation as a prolific creator of novel approaches to deep-seated societal problems.”
Allen became the chief spokesman, explainer, and defender of the Court. He traveled across the country giving speeches and engaging labor leaders in public debate over its merits, including a May 1920 square-off at New York City’s Carnegie Hall with Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). In 1921, Allen even authored a book titled The Party of the Third Part, detailing how Kansas was leading the way in preventing the “needless suffering” of the public.
The first serious test of the new Court’s authority came in the summer of 1922. That June, with the economy in a slump and the transportation industry suffering, the federal Railroad Labor Board voted to cut the wages of railway workers nationwide and roll back other wartime gains. On July 1, 1922, the AFL-affiliated Railway Employees’ Department (RED) called a general strike and almost 400,000 shop men walked out. (The RED shop men comprised blacksmiths, boilermakers, electricians, machinists and car men.)
The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen union did not join them, so the trains continued to run, but it was only a matter of time before locomotives would begin breaking down and the nation’s internal commerce would grind to a halt.
According to Domenico Gagliardo (once a KU economics professor) in his 1941 book The Kansas Industrial Court, “Before the strike began, 12,362 shopmen were employed in Kansas, and on the fifth day of the strike only 3,574 were at work. About 83 per cent of the skilled workers struck.” Of course, striking was now illegal in Kansas, yet this was an interstate commerce issue, hence the problem fell under federal jurisdiction.
Despite these mitigating factors, Governor Allen chose to take advantage of the untested constitutionality of the Court of Industrial Relations and make life even more difficult for striking workers in the Sunflower State. Based on a provision in the Kansas Industrial Act (which established the Court), he ordered Kansas Attorney General Richard J. Hopkins to pursue criminal charges against anyone who picketed in support of the strike. To be sure, this was a legally dubious strategy considering that, under federal law, railroad workers had the right both to strike and picket.
By this time, White, one of the Court’s early champions, had reconsidered his support. He now vigorously opposed its very existence, believing the Court was biased against organized labor. He was sympathetic to the workers and agreed they had gotten a raw deal from the Railroad Labor Board. While he counseled the men not to strike, calling it “bad business” and “not particularly patriotic,” he was quick to add that the “railroad boys,” meaning the owners, “have a kick coming.”
Shortly after the strike commenced, White editorialized in the Emporia Gazette that “the men have a just grievance, and … have been badly treated.” The “right to strike,” he added, “is inalienable.”
In a letter to a friend, White speculated on Allen’s motives: “I think the trouble with the industrial court law is that Henry has an obsession that he wants to crush organized labor with it.” As White biographer Walter Johnson noted, “White believed that Allen had no right to interfere in a nation-wide strike. If the court tried to arbitrate the case, their decision could have no effect on the nation-wide settlement.” In his Autobiography, White charged that the governor acted “under the impulse of terror which filled the hour” to “use to machinery of the Industrial Court and the strong arm of the state” to bully the striking workers.
In his defense, Allen – who corresponded with White frequently on the matter – told his friend that some of the men had “murder in their hearts.” Allen was exaggerating. All that had occurred thus far were minor, albeit many, instances of violence. “If all labor sympathizers were like you,” wrote the governor, “I wouldn’t send any troops anywhere, because you would not be dangerous as a member of a mob. Your humanity would keep you from hurting anybody.” Not so, Allen thought, with the striking workers and the union agitators he believed were pulling their strings.
Allen’s “murder in their hearts” charge was overblown and White called him on it. He went on to remind his friend that “If you and I felt the question of food for our children and felt justified in the strike – and they sure do feel justified – we might tip over a few cars and burn them and snipe at a few scabs.” White went public with his disagreement on July 19, 1922. It was the same day Allen’s no-picketing order went into effect.
In an editorial in the Emporia Gazette, he rhetorically tore Allen’s order to shreds, denouncing it as an “infamous infraction of the right of free press and free speech. Certainly it has not come to such a pass in this country that a man may not say what he thinks about an industrial controversy without disobeying the law.”
But that is just what had come to pass in Kansas, and White was determined to make a public stand by openly flouting the law. In the same July 19 issue of his paper, he announced that the Gazette had just put up a street-facing placard in its office window.
“Instead of [supporting the workers] 100 per cent, we have started it at 49 per cent,” White wrote. “If the strike lasts until tomorrow we shall change the per cent to 50, and move it up a little every day…. If the Industrial Court desires to make a test case,” he dared, “here it is.” “This is not a question of whether the men are right or wrong, but a question of the right of an American citizen to say what he pleases about this strike…. Either we have free speech and a free press in this country, or we have not. Now is the time to find out.” After reading the challenge, Allen commented, “If White insists on being funny we will have to do something about it.”
That something turned out to be ordering his friend’s arrest. Although Industrial Court Judge W.L. Huggins (one of White’s fellow Emporia residents and author of the enabling Act that created the Court in the first place) thought no law had been broken, his colleague Judge J.A. McDermott disagreed, saying that White was “lending his moral support to an unlawful act, and thereby creating an atmosphere in favor of law violation.”
Attorney General Hopkins concurred, deeming White to be encouraging “lawlessness.” As White biographer Everett Rich has noted, the governor “sent McDermott to Emporia to set White right in his thinking and persuade him to take down his card. McDermott failed, and White was arrested on the twenty-second.”
As serious as any arrest is, White’s did not entail anything resembling jackbooted persecution. He knew well ahead of time when the authorities would arrive at the Gazette offices and, according to Johnson, had arranged for his managing editor to “take him for an hour’s drive in the country” to kill time so that news of his arrest would not make the afternoon papers. Savvy media maven that he was, White knew that delaying his arrest so that he could get this story in the morning newspapers would generate greater exposure.
Indeed, many observers wrote off the whole episode as a publicity stunt, especially when White, following the formalities of the arrest, took down his pro-union sign and encouraged others to do the same. Conspiracy-minded cynics smelled a concocted scheme, whereby Allen would “arrest” White, then use his seemingly chagrined friend to counsel compliance with the anti-picketing measure. Some felt the jig was up when Allen and White appeared chummy a few days later at the July 25 “Governor’s Day” festivities at Kansas State Teachers College (present-day Emporia State University) and cordially debated each other.
These charges, albeit intriguing, appear groundless under scrutiny. The believers in them were intellectually incapable of understanding how two longtime friends could possibly disagree so fervently and yet still remain friends. Writing to Elsie Allen, the governor’s wife, White said that, “had I refrained [from defying the order] out of deference to Henry I would not have been worthy of all he has meant to me. If he had not acted as he did from first to last … he would have been unworthy of the faith I have in him. The deepest friendship makes the firmest and fondest faith, not the closest agreement.”
By this point, news of White’s arrest and the free speech issues it raised had spread far and wide. As White later remarked in his Autobiography, “The Kansas press was largely with Governor Allen. The national press, and particularly the liberal press, was with me. And a great hullabaloo occurred across the land.”
One prominent exception among the national press was the New York Times. In its July 24 edition, it ridiculed White as the “dearest friend of Man and Henry Allen, the Emporia darling of the Kansas and the human race” who “sits happy in his thought-boudoir, longing for the touch of a policeman’s hand.”
Many Kansas newspapers seemed to delight in heaping derision and abuse upon White. The Manhattan Mercury scolded him for abetting the “present tendency toward lawlessness.” The Lawrence Journal-World mocked White’s claim to be “upholding both the industrial court and the strike,” saying “nobody else could be both for and against the strikes and get away with it.” Easily the most vituperative was the Kansas City Kansan, which called for White to be “hung, drawn and quartered.”
“About that time,” White recalled in his Autobiography, “an old friend [Fred J. Atwood of Concordia] wrote me a warm and sincere letter of protest. It was kindly and came out of the affection in his heart. I answered him and then it occurred to me that my answer to him would be my answer to everyone who differed with me. I took the carbon copy of my answer, marked it for the editorial page and headed it ‘To An Anxious Friend.’”
And without much more thought than that, this little missive, not originally intended for publication, appeared in the July 27, 1922, edition of the Emporia Gazette. What began as a private letter passionately extolling the virtues and essentialness of free expression soon found its way onto editorial pages across the country.
A representative reaction was that of the New York World, which reprinted “To An Anxious Friend” for its readers, calling it “a model of kindly and devastating criticism” and saying it deserved “a place among historic public documents.”
A year later, on May 13, 1923, the Pulitzer Foundation echoed these sentiments and more. It awarded White’s essay the Pulitzer Prize for best editorial of 1922, declaring that it “excelled in clearness of style, sound reasoning and in its power to influence opinion in the right direction.” His words, noted The Nation, set off “friendly fireworks” which forced the country to “wake up to the good old fact that free speech means neither right or wrong talk, but what the words used to mean before the war, free speech.”
When White received the 1923 Pulitzer Prize, he became both the first KU alum and the first Kansan to win. But awards and adulation probably were not at the forefront of the editorialist’s mind in the summer of 1922 when he wrote and published “To An Anxious Friend.” More likely he was focused on his impending trial.
He was charged with violating the state’s anti-picketing law and for conspiring with striking workers to stop the trains. Some of the nation’s premier attorneys were quick to offer White their services. These included Felix Frankfurter, a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union and a future US Supreme Court justice; William G. McAdoo, a former US Secretary of the Treasury; Albert J. Beveridge, onetime US senator from Indiana; and William E. Borah, sitting US senator from Idaho and a longtime friend of White’s dating back to their days as KU undergraduates.
All were most eager not only to defend White but also, and more importantly, to defend the First Amendment which, they believed, had been so egregiously trampled upon by Governor Allen and his minions.
But by November 1922, the chief minion, Kansas Attorney General Hopkins, was changing his tune. Initially, he had made the case for the stark illegality of White’s pro-union placard. Now he wasn’t so sure. “Small or inconsequential but perhaps technical violations of the law,” he suggested, “should be passed unnoticed.” He also suggested that a conviction of White was highly unlikely, and was concerned that an acquittal would be “a detriment to the Industrial Court.”
Similarly, the governor realized that perhaps he, too, had overplayed his hand. When White’s court date of December 8 arrived, Allen ordered the charges dismissed. White objected stridently, pressing for the opportunity to test a First Amendment freedom. But it was not to be.
Again the “publicity stunt” allegations resurfaced. People were suspicious that a “put-up job,” as White derisively called it, was afoot “between two friends to get our names in the papers.” Close examination seems to indicate such was not the case. Instead, it appears the state chickened out at the last minute, and that Allen sought to avoid the shame and loss of prestige that would have resulted from an acquittal.
But the governor’s decision to punt won him no laurels either. The presiding judge in the case, W.C. Harris, angrily chastised the state, declaring the case against White “was commenced maliciously, or recklessly, without investigation of the facts to ascertain whether a prosecution was justified, and in either event the action taken was equally reprehensible.”
The Kansas press, for the most part, was now back on White’s side. The Topeka Capital, for example, lamented the state’s refusal to try the case, insisting, “If men can be arrested, fined or committed to jail for doing what the Emporia Gazette editor did, it is important to know it…. There can be no two sides to the issue raised by White, that having been arrested and accused of breaking the law, he is entitled to a trial in the courts.”
Much of the national press felt the same way. The New Republic, for instance, called the case “one of the most gross, ugly and inexcusable assaults on freedom of speech which state intoxicated politicians have yet perpetrated.”
For his part, White was indignant at having his name besmirched and his fundamental rights suppressed, only to be denied his opportunity to face his accusers in court. His friendship with Allen survived wholly intact, but he confided years later that he “was never so deeply hurt in all my career in politics as I was by his ruthless behavior.”
There was a common misconception at the time that the Kansas Court of Industrial Relations had brought the anti-picketing and conspiracy charges against White. This was not so. White was charged under the 1920 Kansas Industrial Act, which included other provisions besides the establishment of the Court.
That said, many nonetheless blamed the experimental agency for the chaos and repression that ensued, and this, as it turned out, caused the Court to be severely diminished in the public’s eye. White himself was somewhat responsible for this outcome. As White biographer Rich noted, “White, himself, always wrote as if he were being prosecuted by the court, and in the popular opinion this idea prevailed.” In effect, the Court’s onetime proponent – and now hardened adversary – was surreptitiously doing the body in.
It took three more years, but that is exactly what happened. “White’s arrest cost the Court prestige,” according to White biographer Johnson, “but more fundamental causes brought its downfall.” These included “Political interference with the court’s work, Governor Allen’s impetuous nature, [and] the increasing anti-union bias of the court in preventing picketing but ignoring the employer violations of the law.”
The state legislature abolished the Court of Industrial Relations in 1925 (once again, with few dissenting votes), but not before it had been rendered hollow by two US Supreme Court decisions, one that prohibited states from interfering with private industries and another that declared the Industrial Court’s authority to fix wages unconstitutional. These collectively, concluded Johnson, “wrecked the court.”
According to Bader, modern-day historians have generally deemed the Kansas Court a “conservative measure designed primarily to bust unions.” However, as he pointed out, it was initially heralded as a model of progressivism. Indeed, in 1925, “the liberal journal Survey rhapsodized approvingly [that] the Industrial Court … derived from the same inspirational source as the one that had produced socialism in England and communism in Russia.”
During its five-year run, the Court heard 166 cases – an average of only 33 a year. As Gagliardo observed, “The court was an expensive addition to the state’s machinery for administering labor laws” and not long would the public put up with an agency “languishing for want of disputes to settle.” Had adverse High Court rulings not doomed the Kansas Court of Industrial Relations, mounting public displeasure at having to pay the salaries of three judges who heard less than three cases a month surely would have. In the end, concluded Kansas historian Robert W. Richmond, it was “an interesting but ineffective experiment.”
The railroad strikers who had initially sparked the brouhaha also escaped relatively unscathed. By the fall of 1922, the nation’s trains, let alone the ones in Kansas, were no longer in danger of being stopped, since governmental pressure and an abundance of temporary workers had been sufficient to break the strike. Ultimately, Allen made no efforts to punish strikers en masse, confining himself merely to arresting about 200 workers and a few union leaders on charges of picketing and “intimidation.” As Gagliardo notes, though, “there were practically no convictions, nearly all of the cases being dismissed.”
As for William Allen White, his Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial and eloquent defense of free speech only increased his national standing and prominence as the “Sage of Emporia.” Until his death in 1944, White remained a prolific author and editorialist, informally advising and socializing with every US president from Theodore Roosevelt to Franklin Roosevelt, all the while remaining at his post at the Gazette.
A constant and reliable friend to the University of Kansas – which he attended from 1886 to 1889, though did not complete a degree – White was always ready to lend himself to KU whenever it came calling, be it for a fundraiser, a building dedication or a Commencement address. Since 1944, the Department (later the School) of Journalism has been named in his honor.
And just as his name endures, so too does the legacy of “To An Anxious Friend.” In March 1999, a panel of distinguished reporters, authors and commentators, in conjunction with the New York University Department of Journalism faculty, ranked White’s 1922 editorial 82nd on their list of the twentieth century’s “Top 100 Works of Journalism in the United States.” Kansans might quibble with the placement (and possibly with some of the other choices) but they can surely delight in the fact that one of their own still commands a national audience, so to speak.
Back in 1922, at “Governor’s Day,” Henry Allen himself, after having his friend arrested three days before, said, “Bill White has the kindest heart in the world. He wouldn’t hurt a flea…. [B]ut when he sits down before a double-action typewriter and writes out his emotions, he is a dangerous man.” Allen’s statement still rings true. White was indeed dangerous, especially to those who trifled with First Amendment freedoms.
John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas