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Fringe Benefits

November 4, 2005


On November 4, 2005 the Kenneth Spencer Research Library marked the anniversary of one of the University of Kansas’s quirkier scholarly resources. The chosen date, however, was perhaps a shade arbitrary as the precise day on which KU came into possession of then undergraduate Laird Wilcox’s collection of literature published by America’s radical fringe is a shade elusive. Nonetheless, there was reason to celebrate. After all, forty years earlier KU had inaugurated one of its most important archival holdings with the acquisition of four filing-cabinet drawers’ worth of political screeds, exhortations, ruminations and manifestos.

In the ensuing years the Wilcox Collection of Contemporary Political Movements, specializing in extremist political material from both the postwar American Left and Right, grew, primarily with continued donations from Wilcox. Today it houses hundreds of thousands of items, which run the gamut from books and newspapers to periodicals, flyers, pamphlets, circulars, bumper stickers, audio tapes, and a slew of other ephemera. The sources of this archival mass are similarly eclectic, ranging from the American Nazi Party and the Aryan Nations to the Black Panthers and the Communist Party USA, and nearly every conceivable political organization, activist group, ideological coffee klatch and revolutionary cell in between. The Wilcox Collection takes as its mission the preservation of this literature from the political fringe for posterity. It is truly one of a kind.

And it is, of course, inseparable from the man who assembled it and gave it its name. If an archival assemblage is a mirror of the interests (and sometimes the obsessions) of its collector, then the ecumenical character of the Wilcox collection reflects that of its founder. During his life Laird Maurice Wilcox has been, among other things, a college student, a newspaper editor, a deputy sheriff, a carpenter, a construction worker, a member of MENSA, and an adjunct faculty member at Baker University. Politically, he has been a socialist, “stuffily liberal,” a long-term member of his local carpenter’s union, a founding member of the KU chapter of the Student Peace Union, a member of Students for a Democratic Society, Amnesty International, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

However, he has also been a member of the National Rifle Association, a columnist for a right-wing Topeka newspaper, and a forthright critic of the New Left and its descendents. Wilcox described himself in the 1980s as a “moderate…with a kind of iconoclastic irreverence for sacred cows.” The Wilcox collection itself is anything but iconoclastic or irreverent—it is unquestionably a serious scholarly archive and not “an accumulation of crackpot memorabilia,” as Wilcox once characterized public misconceptions about it. But its founder’s maverick attitudes have shaped it from the beginning.

There was a saying among feminists in the 1970s that “the personal is political.” Taken literally, that phrase might be a useful summation of Laird Wilcox’s own ideological experiences, for they began in his childhood and within his immediate family. Born in San Francisco on November 28, 1942, young Laird Wilcox grew up in a household where political debate among family members erupted with regularity and “a lot of emotion and strong feelings,” as he told the University Daily Kansan in 1995. His father was a “radical” and a “brooding intellectual,” and his aunt and uncle were communists. Another aunt and uncle were members of the right-wing John Birch Society, and his maternal grandfather was staunchly conservative. Meanwhile, his paternal grandfather split the difference as a “liberal Republican.”

Even as a teenager Wilcox found the family’s kitchen-table arguments and divisions intriguing, particularly the intensity of the passions they elicited, and he noticed that his relatives weren’t the only ones acting that way. How did people come to hold such beliefs, and why did they get so riled up in the presence of those who disagreed with them? Wilcox began collecting extremist literature in a quest to understand their motivations. “I wondered,” he recalled later, “what it was about these abstractions and these ideas that made people so upset.” He has not stopped wondering since, and it was in this adolescent-era fascination that the Wilcox collection would have its genesis.

During his younger years Wilcox threw his weight to the left-hand end of the American political scale. In the early 1960s he headed to college at the University of Kansas, where, in keeping with the tenor of the times, he would become deeply involved with an assortment of liberal and left-leaning organizations like the National Committee to Abolish HUAC (the acronym for the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee), the civil rights group Congress on Racial Equality, and the Young Socialist Alliance, among others. Even here, though, amidst the growing ferment of campus radicalism, Wilcox’s resistance to being ideologically pigeon-holed was evident. His commitment to absolute freedom of speech would be apparent in what was perhaps his most visible campus role: chairman of the Student Union Activities Minority Opinions Forum during the 1963-4 academic year.

The highlight of Wilcox’s tenure with the Minority Opinions Forum was his successful campaign to bring the head of the American Nazi Party, George Lincoln Rockwell, to speak on campus on February 9, 1964. Rockwell’s speech was a major event – most state newspapers covered the event, and Chancellor W. Clarke Wescoe felt obliged to issue a statement lauding the intentions of the Forum but separating the University from Rockwell’s opinions in no uncertain terms. General campus reaction was predictably negative (“Beatles – Yeah, Yeah, Yeah! Rockwell – No!” read one sign at a protest on Oread Avenue), but Wilcox sat conspicuously next to Rockwell on the podium during the event, unyielding in his conviction that, in the tradition of John Stuart Mill, liberty of thought and speech applied to everyone, even Nazis.

Even at this early stage of his public life, Wilcox’s penchant for accumulating extremist literature was already becoming well known. He was chosen to be chairman of the Minority Opinion Forum, he told the University Daily Kansan in February 1964, precisely because of his collection. Indeed, earlier that month the KU Union placed part of Wilcox’s collection on display, to considerable popularity as well as controversy. With selections ranging from the left-wing periodical “Way Out” to the National States Rights Party’s organ “The Thunderbolt,” the display drew a constant crowd— “at no time since the display began has there been no one looking at it,” a student manning the Union’s information desk told the Kansan. Two months later Wilcox’s display won KU’s Taylor Book Award and a $100 prize, the first of a number of accolades the collection would receive over the decades. But for now the collection was merely a “hobby” for him, “on which he hopes to write a book later,” the Kansan noted in a profile of him. Wilcox was content to join a variety of extremist organizations (“I must be a member of at least four dozen…on both the left and the right”) and stash their literature in boxes in his basement.

During the next two years Wilcox channeled most of his activist energies into the foundation and publication of the Kansas Free Press [KFP], and there, as with the Minority Opinions Forum, his commitment to free speech and his resistance to being ideologically boxed-in stood out. Published between the fall of 1963 and the early spring of 1966, when it went under for lack of funds, the KFP was one of the nation’s first “underground” newspapers, predating such radical stalwarts as the Berkeley Barb. In general opinion the KFP leaned clearly to the left, but it also maintained a fierce libertarian attitude towards freedom of expression, criticizing the Left as well as the Right and making “no attempt to extract complete conformity from its contributors,” in the word of its masthead. Funding came entirely from subscriptions and small donations (“we have no ‘angel,’” Wilcox told an interviewer from campus radio station KUOK in 1966), thus giving the paper free editorial reign, which it exercised vigorously.

During its brief run the KFP generated a considerable amount of debate and discussion on the KU campus and elsewhere in the region. In 1964 Wilcox and his fellow writers raised $1500 in defense of Henry Haldeman, the son of socialist publisher Emmanuel Haldeman-Julius and editor of the famous “Little Blue Books,” who had been charged by the federal government with sending obscene material through the mail. They also defended faculty members at colleges in Missouri and Nebraska against charges of ideologically motivated improprieties, railed against local manifestations of ideological extremism (mostly of the conservative variety), and commented on national and international politics. Despite its small readership (circulation was approximately 600 at its highest point) the KFP made enough of an impact to inspire at least one bogus issue designed to discredit it and a short-lived right-wing parody known as the Kansas Free Lance, which called Wilcox’s paper “Kansas’ most radical left-wing publication.”

It was during this time that the fruits of Wilcox’s unusual hobby became the charge of the University of Kansas. In 1965 he sold his collection of extremist literature, now large enough to fill four filing-cabinet drawers, to the University for somewhere between $1000 and $1200—sources vary on the exact amount. But whatever the price, the sale hardly marked the end of his involvement. For the next forty years Wilcox would gather literature from a dizzying array of groups and bring them by the box-load to the Spencer Research Library for addition to the collection, now officially named the Wilcox Collection of Contemporary Political Movements. Some of the contributions came from the Left, but more and more during the later 1960s and early 70s Wilcox began – in between his duties as a husband, father, and carpenter – to concentrate on the right wing. In 1966 he decided to “investigate” the Minutemen in depth (where he learned that the secretary of KU’s chapter of Students for a Democratic Society was a Minuteman “mole,” and later discovered two bullet holes in his truck, prompting an application for a deputy sheriff’s commission) and within a few years he was devoting his research and collection activities almost exclusively to the Right.

It was more than mere intellectual curiosity that prompted Wilcox’s increasing interest in the Right, however; the excesses of his own side began to drive him away from the Left, starting in the late 1960s. Those years saw the beginning of the end of the New Left. For writer and activist Todd Gitlin they were the “days of rage,” and for historian Allen Matusow they marked the “unraveling of America,” as the increasing frustration of the antiwar, civil rights, and countercultural movements in the face of “Establishment” resistance pushed them into authoritarianism, nihilism, aggression and drug abuse.

An intellectually-oriented activist and not one prone to storming the barricades (as well as being several years older than the typical protester), Wilcox became increasingly disturbed by what he was seeing on the Left in the years after 1966, when he left KU. In speeches and interviews he was unsparing. The Left, “intellectually brilliant but emotionally immature,” had become “insecure, image seeking, mindless sheep” prone to violence and totalitarianism, Wilcox told the Kansan in October 1969. “The kind of socialism I supported during my days as a KU radical was the voluntary socialism of the cooperatives,” he said, “and not the statist socialism of communism.” He recited a litany of similar charges against the Left to the Johnson County Herald that same month: “opposition to parliamentary institutions; a growing cult of youth and power for their own sake; the desire to enforce minority views on the nation; the growth of violence, a revolt against traditional reason and logic; hooliganism and bullying tactics against opponents.” It was time, Wilcox recalled in the 1980s, to “[face] the fact that the mindless idealism of the early student movement had given birth to a monster.”

Given his fame as a campus liberal, contemporary observers might have been forgiven if they had wondered whether Wilcox had sold out to his conservative adversaries. “I even wondered myself for a while,” he recalled in 1985, and remembered that part of his life as a “period of experimentation and overreaction.” Indeed, a number of his interviews and writings in the early 1970s featured Wilcox taking on a distinctly right-wing voice. During his student days he had feuded with Bert Carlyle, publisher of the conservative newspaper The Topeka Pictorial-Times (Carlyle called the KFP “one of the most left-wing publications I have ever seen” and once likened Wilcox’s appearance to that of a “red-haired, heavily mustached…character out of the early thirties’ Communist movement”).

By 1970, though, Wilcox had his own column in the Pictorial-Times, entitled “What’s Up on the Far Left.” Answering questions from readers, Wilcox spoke in tones and terms far removed from typical liberal rhetoric, calling the My Lai massacre a “hoax” in July 1971, for example, and dismissing environmentalists and homosexuals as “radical leftists,” pushing for a get-tough approach to winning the war in Vietnam, questioning the mental health of liberal activists, warning of Communist brainwashing and lauding “patriotic values.” In a letter to Guns and Ammo magazine in March 1971, Wilcox was just as strident, claiming he had been a liberal until “I went out into the cruel world of a job, responsibility and hard work,” and that gun control “leading to eventual confiscation is essential to the planned Communist takeover and 1973 is the target date. I know this because I helped plan it!”

Was it true? Had Wilcox become the very thing he once opposed: a right winger? Not exactly. Because of his collection and his concerns about free speech, Wilcox was far too knowledgeable about ideological extremism to embrace any version of it uncritically. Indeed, his columns and letters were largely cathartic, a way for him to work out his disgust with the degradation of the Left by role-playing as one of its enemies. Years later he described his writings for Carlyle as a “not too subtle parody of right-wing concerns” and noted that he “took some delight in [their] rhetorical excesses.” This was not to say that he was insincere in his rejection of the Left; he was instead coming to see that “there [were] elements all along the political spectrum in my psyche,” and that strict adherence to the tenets of one side was neither intellectually honest nor rational.

But there was another motivation for Wilcox’s rhetorical turn rightward—his continuing interest in collecting right-wing political material. By posing as an ideological prodigal son, Wilcox soon gained the confidence of large numbers of right-wingers like Bert Carlyle and his readers (the historian Richard Hofstadter once noted in his famous 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” that extremists believe every word of “renegades” and apostates returning to the fold). This in turn gave him much greater access to their materials, which he placed in the Wilcox Collection. “It opened up a lot of sources for the collection,” Wilcox noted in 2006, and gave him new “opportunities to meet people and pick their brains.”

Throughout the 1970s and 80s Wilcox continued to be fiercely critical of liberals and the Left, and especially of their so-called “political correctness” in the name of racial and gender equality. (In 1978 he even threatened to remove the Collection from the Spencer Library unless KU signed an agreement guaranteeing it would never censor the material in the name of cultural or religious sensitivity). In the final analysis, however, he had come to see himself as having “returned to a kind of classical liberalism,” neither a leftist nor a rightist, but a mixture of both.

Meanwhile, the Wilcox Collection continued to grow. Between 1976 and 1986, Wilcox contributed over a dozen file boxes of material a year to it. In later years the Spencer Library began augmenting Wilcox’s contributions with its own collection efforts, and as a result nearly twenty percent of the current Collection comes from sources other than Wilcox himself. Nevertheless, because of his interests, most Wilcox Collection material (approximately 80 percent) is of the right-wing variety, making the Collection itself something of a rarity in academic circles. While the importance of American left-wing movements has been a matter of mainstream historical study since the 1970s, only more recently, within the last fifteen years or so, have scholars begun to give the Right similar scrutiny. And outside similar collections at Brown University and the University of Iowa, few academic libraries have seen fit to save the polemics and screeds of the far Right. Thus both the Collection’s importance as a scholarly resource and the foresight of Wilcox and the Spencer Library staff has become increasing apparent in recent years.

Indeed, in the 1980s the Spencer Library staff, knowing it was the custodian of an archival treasure of fast-growing value, decided to tackle the problem of organizing and categorizing the Collection’s holdings. This would be no easy task. The sheer volume of the material was daunting in itself, but organizing it all was made more difficult by its often-eclectic physical and literary characteristics: pamphlets, flyers, loose papers, ephemera, and other so-called “fugitive materials,” much of which was published and republished under ever-changing titles by groups of short lifespan and obscure background.

As a result the Library had to tweak the Library of Congress cataloging system to accommodate these materials and, of course, had to figure out methods for storing them while still maintaining their accessibility to researchers. To facilitate the process, in 1985 Curator Sheryl Williams secured a $140,000 grant from the US Department of Education, which allowed the Library to hire two cataloging assistants and specialist Rebecca Schulte to oversee the process. (Schulte is currently the University Archivist for KU and the bibliographer for the Wilcox Collection). The grant did not allow for the entire Collection to be fully catalogued, although a great deal of the work was finished during the three-year life of the grant, and the organizing project continues today.

Validation for Wilcox and the Spencer Library has come from a variety of sources in subsequent years. In the early 1990s Wilcox garnered a number of awards for his collecting work and his dedication to free speech: the 1993 Myers Center Award for the Study of Human Rights in the United States, the prestigious Freedom of Information Award from the Kansas Library Association in 1994, and the 1995 Mencken Award from the Free Press Association. Meanwhile, he became a regular commentator about extremism in the media, being quoted in national newspapers like the Los Angeles Times during the Waco and Ruby Ridge crises and after the Oklahoma bombing in April 1995. Meanwhile the Collection itself continues to receive attention and praise both inside and outside the University of Kansas and the state itself.

But perhaps the best example of the Collection’s value is in its increasing presence in serious scholarship. First, an increasing number of undergraduate students at KU have been introduced to the Wilcox Collection by their instructors in recent years, and given introductory tours by archivists like Williams and Schulte. Because of the fascinating character of its material the Collection is an ideal place for budding scholars to learn both the joys of archival research in a first-class archive and the difficulties of sorting through a cacophony of voices for historical insight.

Meanwhile, the burgeoning scholarly interest in the birth and growth of the American postwar Right, as well as the continuing interest in Sixties leftist radicalism, suggest that the Wilcox Collection’s presence in academic research promises to increase. Indeed, professional scholars and writers from around the nation and the world have used the Collection as a major source for at least eighteen books since the 1980s—a telling indication, to be sure, that the Collection’s rows and rows of colorful books, stacks of newspapers, and endless boxes full of the dreams and nightmares of a thousand extremist groups amount to far more than “an accumulation of crackpot memorabilia.”

Brian Drake

Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source notes: This article draws from a number of sources both inside and outside the Wilcox Collection itself. An excellent overview of both the Collection and Wilcox’s life and experiences is Emily Hughes Dominick, “Collecting Extremes: A History of the Wilcox Collection,” Collections: A Journal for Museum and Archives Professionals 1 (May 2005): 347-64. Spencer Library Archivist Rebecca Schulte’s “Schulte Personal Files” contain a great deal of material used in this article – newspaper clippings from across the nation about Wilcox and the Collection, letters, magazine articles, and so forth. The Collection’s copy of Wilcox’s FBI file [RH WL D2652], which he requested, annotated, and published in the 1980s, also contains valuable news clippings and much autobiographical commentary. On Wilcox’s childhood and early days at KU see also the University Daily Kansan, January 19, 1995, and personal e-mail correspondence with the author, November 21, 2006. For Wilcox’s comments about “crackpot memorabilia,” see the University Daily Kansan, March 7, 1979. For his activist career at KU and his disillusionment with the left see the University Daily Kansan, July 24, 1964, January 13, 1967, March 17, 1969, and October 23, 1969. For his feud with Robert DePugh and Bert Carlyle see RH WL MS 1.1.7 in the Wilcox Collection. For his writings in the Topeka Capital-Times and his March 1971 Guns and Ammo letter see “Newspaper Articles Concerning Laird M. Wilcox 1963-1972,” RH MS CK4, Wilcox Collection. In particular see the “What’s Up with the Far Left” columns of April 23, April 28, July 1, July 22, 1971, August 5, and December 30, 1971, and May 10, 1972. For his “role playing” comments see author’s correspondence, November 21, 2006. For his concern with “political correctness,” his threats to remove the Collection from KU’s hands, and general commentary on the Collection, see the University Daily Kansan, April 24, 1978, February 15, 1979, February 22, 1988, May 1, 1990, February 8, 1993, and September 15, 1994.]