WILMINGTON — Ultimately public support and not words on paper — even if they’re in the U.S. Constitution — is what ensures the freedom to speak your mind.
That’s a lesson Larry Gara, Wilmington College emeritus professor of history, learned from his experiences as an absolute pacifist during World War II. Gara gave the 23rd annual WC/Daughters of American Colonists History Lecture to an audience Wednesday that largely filled the McCoy Room of Kelly Center.
He related a series of personal experiences from when he was a young man of military draft age, and from when he first sought to teach history for a living. He also mentioned examples in U.S. history of people put behind bars for speaking or writing opinions or for assembling peaceably — all of which are expressly protected in the First Amendment.
In addition, he pointed to contemporary cases that show the First Amendment is not always enough to allow free expression.
Recently, the Oklahoma Legislature voted to ban high school advanced placement classes in U.S. history because, according to the bill’s sponsor, they only teach what is bad about America, Gara said.
And there are a number of Catholic activists, mostly nuns, in prison today because as a protest they entered a missile base and sprinkled blood on missiles, according to Gara.
Despite his experience, he said he is grateful for the Bill of Rights — the first 10 constitutional amendments. And when students asked during his teaching days what he liked about the United States, he recalled Wednesday he would reply “the Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights.”
In his lecture titled “The Constitution, Freedom of Speech and the Historian,” Gara said those “who teach and write history are especially vulnerable to criticism from individuals and special interest groups — criticism that affects our freedom to teach and even at times to speak.”
As detailed in an Associated Press report in Thursday’s News Journal, he was fired from Grove City College in 1962 for his views, and recently received a formal apology from the institution.
The firing meant Gara had to seek elsewhere for a teaching job and he was selected for one at Wilmington College. The then-president of Wilmington College, James Reed, a historian himself, encouraged Gara to be a part-time activist as well as a teacher and writer.
He taught there full-time from 1962 until retiring in 1992. The college, Gara said, was an ideal place to work.
Following the Wednesday talk and before a question-and-answer session, Professor of History Ed Agran announced the lecture series will be renamed, starting next year, the Larry and Lenna Mae Gara Annual History Lecture. Lenna Mae is Larry’s wife, and a writer and activist.
Larry Gara posted on his Facebook page, “Last night was both overwhelming and humbling. Instead of the very small audience I expected, the room was full of attentive and kind people. Lenna Mae and I were totally surprised when Ed Agran announced that the annual lecture would be renamed the Larry and Lenna Mae lecture. We appreciate all who were involved.”
Reach Gary Huffenberger at 937-556-5768 or on Twitter @GHuffenberger.