Radical political literature collection, cited as one of nation’s best, marks 50 years at KU
Are the Russians controlling our weather?
Honeywell kills people
Brown and proud
Support gun control, disarm the FBI
Bring America back to God!
I’d rather be killing communists in Central America
Fluoridation … Is it morally right?
People of America have some extreme political beliefs.
One of the country’s best collections of material reflecting those beliefs is celebrating its 50th anniversary at Kansas University. The Wilcox Collection of Contemporary Political Movements at the Spencer Research Library has more than 100,000 items, from bumper stickers and posters emblazoned with the messages above, to books about extremist movements.
To mark the 50th anniversary of the Wilcox Collection of Contemporary Political Movements, pieces from the collection are on display at the Spencer Research Library during normal library hours, as well as online at lib.ku.edu/wilcox.
An event is planned on Wednesday, with a reception at 5:30 p.m. and presentation by KU professor emeritus of history Bill Tuttle at 6:15 p.m. The event is free, but attendees are asked to RSVP to Rachel Karwas at 864-8961 or email@example.com.
But perhaps its most treasured feature — researchers, curators and the man who started the collection himself say — is its breadth. The collection covers both left- and right-wing movements, well-known to obscure, tempered to highly offensive.
“If the collection stands for anything, it’s the fact that our country’s made up of a matrix of beliefs,” said Laird Wilcox, who began collecting the materials as a youth.
It also reminds of the importance of free speech, Wilcox adds.
As he sees it, extremism is basically an exaggerated response to events and the times we live in, and the beliefs it sprouts are not always reputable. Everyone’s looking for something to make sense of the world, and ideologies supply that in an oversimplified way.
“We’ve had this long tradition of freedom of speech where you can say something, but I can talk back,” Wilcox said. “That’s a major factor in keeping our democracy stable.”
Wilcox, now 72 and living in Olathe, said he grew up in a family with a lot of dinnertime political discussion and disagreement.
It fascinated him, he said, that people could be so emotionally wrapped up in these issues.
He started reading about ideological movements, sought out leaders of leftist and rightist movements to talk to them about their beliefs and began collecting their “stuff.”
While attending classes at KU in the early 1960s, he was active in the civil rights and other movements but more as an observer than a participant, he said. All the while, he was collecting more “stuff.”
Wilcox sold his collection to KU in 1965, and continues to donate items to it. The library also has a fund with which to purchase new materials to keep it growing.
Wilcox’s collecting wasn’t linked to any class or study track at KU, he said. He did not finish a degree at KU and went into a career as a carpenter. A lifelong independent student of political ideologies, he continued to collect materials, publishing informational booklets based on various movements in the collection and collaborating with researchers.
Wilcox even has an FBI file — understandable, he said. After all, he was requesting radical materials by mail and communicating with controversial movement leaders — that is now part of the collection.
In 1986, KU got a grant to archive the Wilcox Collection. That’s when Becky Schulte came to KU, hired to work on the massive process, which she said was a three-year, $350,000 effort.
In addition to cataloging, the archiving project yielded another of the collection’s most important pieces — primary source documents. They tracked down and sent questionnaires to organization leaders themselves asking what their missions were, and those answers are now part of the collection.
“That is so important when people are doing research,” Schulte said. “Many of these groups are not in existence anymore.”
Schulte is now the KU archivist as well as bibliographer for the Wilcox Collection. Sherry Williams, curator of collections, met Wilcox when she came to KU in 1979 and continues to work closely with the collection.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary, there’s a Wilcox Collection exhibit on view at the Spencer Research Library as well as online.
Choosing which of the thousands of items to pull out and display was hard.
“It’s a challenge because there’s so much,” she said. Then, gesturing to the handful of cases at the library, “This is just the tip of the tip of the iceberg.”
The collection’s most offensive items are not on display.
Schulte said it contains anti-Semitic and other racist material, as well as bloody and graphic animal rights and anti-abortion pieces.
Through the years she’s had student library assistants asked to be taken off tasks involving the Wilcox Collection.
“It would be so offensive that they wouldn’t want to work with it,” Schulte said. “One of the things that Sherry and I have to do is remain very objective.”
Researchers have come from all over the country, and world, to access the Wilcox Collection.
Jeffrey Kaplan, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, relied heavily on the collection for his book “Radical Religion in America.”
“Nothing compares to it in terms of its completeness, its breadth and scope,” Kaplan said. “It’s not only radical right, it’s radical left. And virtually any kind of political — and to a degree, religious — radicalism is there.”
Kaplan in particular was looking for, and found, information about the Christian Identity organization, as well as some occult national socialism groups.
Darren Mulloy, associate professor of history at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, visited the Wilcox Collection for research on two books.
“The World of the John Birch Society: Conspiracy, Conservatism and the Cold War,” is newly released. “American Extremism: History, Politics and the Militia Movement,” came out in 2004.
“There are lots of places where you can find the Black Panther newspaper or Militia Movement stuff,” Mulloy said. “What’s really fascinating about the Wilcox Collection is it has all of that under one roof.”