Campus Journal: Far Left and Far Right Meet in a Midwest Library

Special to The New York Times

Lawrence, Kan — This town of 68,000, home to mainstream icons like the University of Kansas Jayhawks sports teams and a Hallmark Cards plant, might seem an unusual choice of locales for what many experts call the pre-eminent collection of American extremist political literature.

But for 27 years, the manifestoes, broadsides, books and taped speeches of Communists and crypto-fascists, witches, white supremacists and U.F.O. conspiracy theorists, not to mention countless other fringe ideologies, have been growing in number in the climate-controlled rooms of the Wilcox Collection of Contemporary Political Movements at the University of Kansas Library.

The chief nurturer of this eponymous collection is Laird Wilcox, a 49-year-old writer and retired carpenter who studied at the university in the early 60’s, became a member of the radical Students for a Democratic Society, dropped out of college and began collecting what he calls “my monument to the great diversity of free speech in this country.” He sold three file drawers of political material for $1,100 to the university in 1965, and The Wilcox Collection was born. For the 27 years since then, he has been donating an average of two or three boxes of extremist literature a month.

The Wilcox Collection now includes more than 10,000 books, pamphlets and periodicals, 800 audio tapes, and close to 100,000 other pieces, including correspondence, posters and clippings from more than 8,000 organizations from the 1920’s to the present. University officials declined to estimate the collection’s value, but Mr. Wilcox says it is worth $2 million. Among the rarities in the collection, Mr. Wilcox said, is a tape of a pro-Fascist speech by Charles A. Lindbergh in the 1930’s and American Communist documents from the same era.

He collects his material through his network of contacts in extremist political movements and through reading their publications, which often have advertisements for books and tapes. “I’ve bought, been given, or traded for all of it,” he said. A steady stream of students and researchers used the closed-stack collection, which has minimal restrictions.

“It is so far the leading collection of its kind; it is extraordinary,” said Lyman Tower Sargent, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, who has used the collection for a textbook on contemporary political ideologies.

Mr. Wilcox, the son of a construction accountant who moved his family frequently, has had a near-lifelong fascination with extremists; he grew up listening to intense political debates between relatives who ran the political gamut, from socialists to members of the John Birch Society.

“Why does someone become a Communist?” he asks. “Why does someone become a Bircher? What makes them vulnerable to extremist politics — and not necessarily the particular kind they end up with, which really is almost accidental?”

Mr. Wilcox, who describes himself as a “classical free-speech liberal,” has a few theories, based on his acquaintance with a number of extremists. He says all extremists take a political notion to its limits, regardless of the price they may pay in their personal lives. They brook no opposition to their views, often feeling morally superior to others. They also often show a disturbing fondness for letting the ends justify the means.

Despite what he sees as almost a pathetic cast to many extremists’ lives, he argues that they are sometimes prophetic, and that today’s fringe movement may be tomorrow’s mainstream organization. “Most of the social movement that has taken place in the United States in the last century started out as being viewed as the work of extremist groups,” Mr. Wilcox said. “The women’s movement, you know, was like a bunch of nuts, a bunch of feminists, suffragettes, crackpots, cooks. That’s how they were viewed.

“The civil rights movement was viewed as marginal also, watched by the F.B.I., suspected of all kinds of terrible things,” he said. “Yet these were groups that developed a significant following that actually attached themselves to legitimate issues.”

Source: The New York Times Education Wednesday, August 12, 1992.

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