Collection on John Gates controversy
A Guide to the Collection
John Gates attracted attention at Southern Methodist University and the city of Dallas when he was invited to participate in a panel on world issues hosted by the Student Forum Committee. An avowed communist, Gates came to campus on April 23, 1958.
He was born in New York City in 1913, the son of Polish Jewish immigrants. He briefly attended City College and became a member of the Communist Party in 1931. After about two years of college he moved to Ohio and made an unsuccessful run for public office. He fought against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War as a part of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and he enjoyed the distinction of becoming the highest-ranking American to fight in that conflict. He also served as a paratrooper in the European theatre during World War II.
Gates worked for several years as editor of the Daily Worker, a party newspaper that halted production in early 1958 due to financial difficulties. Described as "once a guiding genius of the Communist Party in the United States" by the Dallas Morning News, Gates and the party leadership had parted ways over his belief that the party had become too subservient to the Soviet Union, as well as his assertion that the CPUSA had failed to be a real force for change. Gates had been sent to jail in 1949 along with several other party members after being convicted for plotting to overthrow the government.
Although still a communist, Gates said, "I feel that the Communist Party has ceased to be an effective force for democracy, peace, and socialism in the United States…I have come to the reluctant conclusion that the party cannot be changed from within and that the fight to do so is hopeless."
News that SMU, an institution affiliated with the United Methodist Church, had invited a communist (albeit, one who had broken with the Communist Party’s leadership) to give a talk on campus provoked a considerable deal of criticism. A local civic group, the Public Affairs Luncheon Club, countered that the Student Center Governing Board should not "permit the prestige of a great Christian university to be used to dignify and promote a self-acknowledged atheist and unregenerate follower of the Communist line." The club sent a resolution condemning the invitation to SMU President Willis M. Tate and the student committee who had asked Gates to speak. The SMU Mothers’ Club also voiced opposition to the event.
President Tate nevertheless asserted that Gates would be allowed to present his views. "SMU realizes the importance which the subject of communism holds," Tate said. "Through Gates, the subject can be intelligently scrutinized."
The event was opened to the public, and Student Center Board president Marie Murphy announced that the talk would be moved from the Student Center to McFarlin Auditorium to accommodate a larger crowd. The nature of the event was changed; however, rather than giving a full-fledged speech, Gates would give some introductory remarks and then take questions from a panel of faculty and students.
The panel was comprised of SMU Chaplain J. Claude Evans, religion professor Douglas Jackson, government professor Lloyd Wells, Mary Murphy, and Student Forum Committee Chairman Spencer Harris. The moderator was Glen Costin, who had served as executive director of the Dallas Council on World Affairs. In addition, FBI Agent Herbert A. Philbrick, who had infiltrated the Communist Party and had assisted in the 1949 conviction of Gates, also participated.
Reaction from those who attended seemed to be positive overall. Forum Committee Chairman Harris thought the event was a success and that students benefitted from hearing Gates’ opinions, even if they did not share those opinions. The performance of the professors who questioned Gates was praised as well. An editorial in the Dallas Morning News, however, criticized Gates for apparently taking more than his allotted share of time to make an opening statement and for personally attacking Philbrick. The News seemed to think that Philbrick had more effectively presented his views than did Gates.
Gates died in Miami Beach, at the age of 78, in May 1992.
"Ex-Editor for U.S. Reds Plans Speech at SMU." Dallas Morning News, March 17, 1958, pg. 2.
Folkart, Burt. "John Gates, 78; Ex-Top U.S. Communist." Los Angeles Times, May 26, 1992 (no page given).
"John Gates." Spartacus Educational: http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/SPgates.htm. Accessed September 30, 2009.
"Gates Talked a Good Game." Dallas Morning News, April 25, 1958, pg. 5.
McCullar, Clardy. "Tate Defends Forum Plans." Dallas Morning News, March 21, 1958, pg. 1.
"Professors and Gates Win Student Plaudits." Dallas Morning News, April 24, 1958, pg. 2.
"SMU Asked to Cancel Red’s Talk." Dallas Morning News, March 18, 1958, pg. 1.
"SMU Opens Gates Talk to Public." Dallas Morning News, March 25, 1958, pg. 1.
The Gates collection is arranged into one series. All of the material dates from 1958, from the month or two before and after the event. Most of the collection consists of news clippings from a variety of newspapers (mostly Dallas and Texas papers), but there are one or two SMU news releases as well. Some biographical information on the forum participants, as well as transcripts of the forum, make up the rest of the collection.
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Collection is open for research use.
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Collection on John Gates controversy, Southern Methodist University Archives, DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University.
Paul H. Santa Cruz, 2009.
Lara Corazalla, 2009.
Detailed Description of the Collection