LAWRENCE — The American political landscape of 50 years ago was full of radical movements and ideology, from violent opposition to the Vietnam War to lesser-known ideas about the supposed danger of fluoridating water. It was also when the University of Kansas Libraries purchased the collection of a young student chronicling activities of different political movements across the ideological spectrum. KU is marking the 50th anniversary of the Wilcox Collection of Contemporary Political Movements, one of the world’s premier collections of political ephemera and literature, with an online exhibition from the collection.
The collection, which has been a resource to researchers and authors around the world and generations of KU professors and students, has grown considerably since it first found a home in the Kenneth Spencer Research Library. In 1965 KU student Laird Wilcox sold his already impressive collection to the libraries. He was fascinated by fringe movements, regardless of their ideas or purpose, and began collecting leaflets, fliers, newsletters and other political materials as a teenager.
“The Wilcox collection doesn’t just represent politics in general, it takes a more focused look at what Laird considered as ‘left wing’ and ‘right wing’ politics and preserving what has been part of those various positions over the years,” said Sheryl Williams, curator of collections in KU Libraries. “It’s not all what would be considered ‘extreme,’ though some of it certainly is.”
KU Libraries will host an event to celebrate the anniversary March 25. A reception will begin at 5:30 p.m., followed by a presentation by Bill Tuttle, professor emeritus of history, at 6:15. RSVP to Rachel Karwas by March 20 at 785-864-8961 or firstname.lastname@example.org. An online gallery of materials is included at http://lib.ku.edu/wilcox.
In the collection’s 50 years, it has grown to include more than 28,000 books, pamphlets and periodicals, 187 cubic feet of manuscripts and nearly 200,000 pieces of ephemera. Wilcox continues to collect and donate materials to this day, while donors from around the country have contributed materials and the library has purchased items as well. The strength of the material has drawn countless visitors, scholars and classes to view, study and cite the materials over its first half-century. Biographers, and authors chronicling everything from the militia movement to the rise and fall of the Ku Klux Klan as well as professors, students and journalists have all been drawn to the unique collection. A large part of its value is preserving aspects of American history that might have otherwise been lost or forgotten.
“It resonates with students especially,” Williams said. “It’s a powerful collection that covers many research interests. A large part of the collection contains printed materials, including leaflets, fliers and newsletters. The items are ephemeral in that their purpose was to support a cause, and they weren’t originally intended to be preserved in a library like a book.”
Many well-known names are represented in the collection. Newsletters published by Ron Paul containing what many consider to be racist and inflammatory material are included. Writings by and materials pertaining to Pat Buchanan, Phyllis Schlafly, Lyndon Larouche, Angela Davis, Ralph Nader and many others are housed within as well. Well-known and at times powerful organizations such as the John Birch Society, Liberty Lobby, Black Panthers and others are documented. Books related to movements such as “Cesar Salad,” a cookbook including recipes based on the theme of Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers strike, and unique items such as Wilcox’s own FBI file are part of the holdings as well.
Wilcox grew up in a politically diverse family and their conversations would cover points all over the political map. Those wide-ranging conversations sparked his interest in political movements, and as a teenager growing up near Washington, D.C. he started collecting materials and attending all manner of political events, which became a lifelong passion and laid the foundation for a world class collection.
“His parents didn’t know it at the time, but he established a post office box and started asking people to send him things, and many did,” said Becky Schulte, university archivist and curator of the Wilcox collection. “He was interested psychologically in why people believe what they do and why they feel so strongly. And he is a strong proponent of free speech.”