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Breaching the wall

UNC's contribution to the spirit of the 60s

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On March 9, 1966, two well-known American communists came to speak to UNC students. But this was no ordinary campus lecture. For starters, 3,000 people attended. And then, it wasn't even "on campus." The students gathered on the old quad bounded by Franklin Street to the north. The speakers, however, had been barred from the campus by North Carolina's Speaker Ban Law. So guest lecturers Herbert Apthecker and Frank Wilkinson spoke to the students from the Franklin Street sidewalk, over the low stone wall that divides town from gown.

It was a creative and audacious act of defiance, and it symbolically ended the state legislature's attempt to muzzle free speech on campus, although the law wouldn't be formally nullified until two years later. Now there's a film commemorating the event and the political circumstances of the era. Called Beyond the Wall, it's the work of Hap Kindem, professor of filmmaking at UNC, and will be shown this Friday, May 20 at the Community Church of Chapel Hill.

Although his film documents events of four decades ago, Kindem finds more than passing contemporary relevance. "The PATRIOT Act is why I hope my documentary is timely," Kindem says, speaking last week by telephone. "Sixteen provisions are up for renewal this year and Congress is going to have to make a decision. I don't think people are aware of the danger of trusting that the PATRIOT Act will not be used politically."

Then as now, UNC-Chapel Hill was a genteel community, and the more celebrated campus activism of the 1960s occurred in places like Berkeley, Madison and New York. In fact, the most notorious speaker ban law was in effect at UC-Berkeley where Mario Savio became nationally famous for his eloquent leadership in opposition to the ban, which was finally lifted in the face of raucous protests in January 1965.

In June 1963, in the dying days of the N.C. General Assembly session, Rep. Phil Godwin persuaded a majority of his colleagues to pass a similar ban on subversive speakers on North Carolina campuses. Specifically, the law prohibited speakers who were known members of the American Communist Party; had advocated the overthrow of the U.S. Constitution; or had ever pleaded the Fifth Amendment before a government body. In addition to the leftist intellectuals who were barred from the campus, the ban also forced the cancellation of gigs by the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary.

Kindem says that at least one other film, Crossroads on the Hill, has documented the episode, but his is the first to detail the key role played by the UNC chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. Among the main interview subjects are campus SDS leaders Gary Waller and Jerry Carr, both cheerfully unsentimental about their youthful activism. There's even some lingering friction, as Waller and then-UNC President William Friday continue to disagree about their relative roles in opposing the ban.

Kindem's past work has included a film about his students' trip to Qatar to learn about the workings of Al Jazeera and one that documented a trip to Africa with Durham-based dancer Chuck Davis. But Beyond the Wall involved less travel than old-fashioned research techniques, including interviewing the surprisingly long list of surviving witnesses to the Speaker Ban controversy and many hours hunting down archival footage.

Kindem's biggest coup was locating film footage of the pivotal sidewalk appearance by Apthecker and Wilkinson. He found the footage in, of all places, London.

"The ITN [International Television Network] is an archive of news from all over the world," Kindem says, adding that he was forced to pay "exorbitantly" for the rights. "They could not tell me how they got it, but possession is nine-tenths of the law and they have it."

Kindem was less successful at locating archival clips of a certain nightly editorialist for WRAL-TV in Raleigh. He searched high and low for footage of pre-Senate Jesse Helms as he fulminated against racial integration, creeping communism and other immoralities, to no avail. "If they'd had it, I would have done everything I could to get it," Kindem says. "They told me that all of his Viewpoints had been taped over."

If UNC students today are more liberal than those of the 1960s--when the campus was overwhelmingly white and male--Kindem agrees that there's less direct political engagement on today's campus. "The reason they're not as active today as in the 1960s is because of the draft. Every male back then had to make a decision, and that doesn't exist today."

Still, Kindem notes that politicians infringe on undergraduates' civil liberties at their own risk, citing the 2002 controversy when legislators attempted to intervene with the summer reading assignment of Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations, by Michael Sells. "The undergrads were upset about this attempt to curtail free speech."

Beyond the Wall will screen Friday, May 20 at Community Church of Chapel Hill, 106 Purefoy Road. The film begins at 6:30 p.m. and a panel discussion will follow.

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