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Friday, September 11, 2015

Chapter 5- The Knox Experience

The Knox Experience

“We thank God that ours is not ‘one nation indivisible.’” 

Bill Allen in an editorial on February 23, 1939 in the Knox Student
(From Special Collections and Archives, Knox College Library, Galesburg, Illinois.)

It is not easy to understand how someone was willing to give up so much to join the Army. He was fifth year teacher in a stable job, who did not have to go to the Army. He chose to enlist in the Army. At first glance, his Knox years would seem to make his decision to join the Army even more puzzling. But his writing during his Knox years may show how Bill’s decision to join the Army was consistent with his Knox experience.

Did Knox change Bill Allen? I am sure most if not all young people are changed by their college experiences. It is likely Bill arrived as a political activist. It appears both his father (Benton) and his grandfather (Walter) were politically involved. Bill’s letter to the editor was not a family first.
Walter had a history of writing to the Peoria Star to express his political beliefs. Walter by all accounts had strong commitment to his politics. He was both a doctor and a veterinarian. He delivered his grandson, Benton Charles Jr. Because he had a political disagreement with the County Clerk, Walter refused to register the birth certificate for some time.

Was Bill a communist? He certainly appears to have been labeled as a communist by several different people in the Knox community. Even The Gale in describing his work as the editor, refers to the paper as a “slightly red tinged paper.” And a professor in a campus Chapel declared the paper had become communist.  In his writing, Bill never backs away from the “communist label.” It is entirely possible Bill may have had interest in exploring communism or socialism.

With the Russian Revolution, the Stock Market Crash, and the New Deal all being pretty much contemporary events, it is understandable college students would have discussed both socialism and communism. 1930’s student activist, Joseph P. Lash, claimed much of the socialist movements on college campuses were more intellectual curiosity.  Lash described students in the 1930’s by saying, “…by being a Socialist, you in a sense were manifesting a skepticism.”  (The Student Movements of the 1930’s, Joseph P. Lash)

Bill may well have enjoyed being labeled as communist because it helped promote his belief in the importance of diversity and of independent thinking. Based on his background, it is likely he was liberal in his political beliefs and probably did find positive aspects to socialism and communism. But what his exact political beliefs were is not necessarily significant.

Bill’s Knox education reveals significant aspects of his personality and his character. He appears to have been the poster child for the value of education at a small liberal arts school. He is interested and taking classes in history, political science, drama, English, literature, and Latin. He was not a man who chose to specialize. He appears to have been intellectually curious.

His writing shows he had strong, well thought out beliefs. He had a vision of what both Knox College and America should be. The recurring value he expresses is related to the importance of freedom. He talks about freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and freedom of opinion. He values the importance of independent thinking.

It would appear some Knox students, alumni, and faculty thought by attaching the communist label, they could either discredit Bill’s thoughts, or cause him to be less radical. It did not shut Bill up. Bill chose to use the labeling as a way of promoting the importance of diversity of thought and freedom. He is trying to say this is an ideal of Knox College and an ideal of the United States. He was not lukewarm in his beliefs.

And the most important point of this conflict is that Bill Allen was not going to back down. It is clear he was willing to take the tough and maybe the unpopular stand. He showed that if you believe in something, you must stand up for that belief. In this case, the belief was not communism. The belief was in the importance of the American ideal of freedom of speech and freedom of opinion. And it might be argued what is more central to the concept of freedom of opinion than American democracy. At Knox College in 1939, freedom was worth “fighting for” in the newspaper, it is not a surprise that in 1943 Bill Allen would choose to join the Army to fight for freedom and democracy in the U.S. Army.

Bill Allen at Knox shows he was a leader. He was not waiting for someone else to do things. In every area- theater, debate club, student government, the newspaper- he did not just participate, he was a leader. Clearly he was respected by his peers and recognized for his ability. 

Based on the evidence to say Bill was a communist or socialist would be speculative. Bill’s attacks during the Chapel issue were attacks on speakers who were big business, anti-Roosevelt, and anti-New Deal. While one might then guess he was pro-Roosevelt and pro-New Deal, trying to figure out his exact political beliefs misses what is significant in his college writing. At the heart of his writing was the importance of freedom of thought, and the importance of tolerance for diversity of thought. These were issues he was willing to stand up for as a college student and to later fight for in the U.S. Army.

My initial question was, “Did Knox College change Bill Allen?” A better question is, “Did Bill Allen change Knox College?”

The senior page for the graduates of 1939. (Gale 1940, (From Special Collections and Archives, Knox College Library, Galesburg, Illinois.)

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