A Civil Liberties Case From Champaign

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The story of the PEOPLE of the STATE OF ILLINOIS ex reI.
VASHTI McCOLLUM v. BOARD OF EDUCATION OF
SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 71, CHAMPAIGN COUNTY, ILLINOIS,
et al (333 US 203, 1948) has largely been forgotten.
The action arose as a challenge to a program of religious education
classes held in public school buildings on school time.
Today, the chief significance of the McCollum Case is that it
was the first of a series of cases brought under the First and
Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution,
where a practice by a local or state governmental body was
actually held to be illegal as “an establishment of religion.”
The practice of “released time” religious education in
the public schools began in Gary, Indiana, in 1921. Little
anticipating the determined challenge which would result
in a legal decision of nation-wide significance, local clergy
and school officials instituted their released time program
of sectarian religious instruction in the public schools of
Champaign, Illinois, and the five-year fuse was lit.
A FAMILY ENBATTLED AND UNDER SEIGE
My connections with this case are more than casual. The
plaintiff, Vashti Cromwell McCollum, was my mother.
The causus belli was James Terry McCollum, my older
brother, and my grandfather, Arthur G. Cromwell, was a
prominent participant. While I had no active involvement
in the official events, either in the trial or the two
appeals, my memories as a youngster from the ages of
eight to eleven are vivid, reflective, I am sure, of the personal
trauma related to negative reactions locally while
the case was in the courts. Also several rereadings over
the years of my mother’s book, ONE WOMAN’S FIGHT,
no doubt have helped keep the details reasonably fresh
in my mind.
From the time my mother filed suit in June, 1945,
well through the trial the following September, the public
perception was that the case represented a challenge
to religion itself—that God was on trial, rather than
whether or not the sectarian religious classes as they were
conducted in the public schools of Champaign, Illinois,
were legal.
Another factor certainly must have weighed heavily in
the public response to the suit. World War II was in its
closing months. Already there were cracks developing
between the victorious Allies. These international dissensions
were signs of what was to become, during the
height of the Cold War, an almost hysterical fear of “atheistic
communism.”
From my vantage point, it was as if my family was under
a constant state of siege for the two and a half years the case
was in the courts. I can remember my mother telling my
brothers and me at the time, that we had to be especially
careful in what we did and how we acted because everyone
in town knew who we were and would be watching.
She also told us before the final decision in the case that
there were more people for us than against. She, however,
had the advantage of frequent travel to such cosmopolitan
places as Chicago, New York City, and Boston on matters
relating to the case. Away from the close, provincial atmosphere
of Champaign-Urbana, she was able to benefit from
a much broader perspective than I, as to the attitudes of
thinking people in the rest of the country. Despite her
assurances of support for her cause, I retained my doubts.
Just two years after the 1948 Supreme Court decision, I
spent a portion of my freshman year in high school in
Gainesville, Florida. This was during a most virulent stage
of the Cold War, made ever more fearful by the related
scourge of McCarthyism. The school day opened with a
Bible reading done by students on a rotational basis. Aware
of the high degree of religious conformity in that southern
city—its almost synonymous equation with good Americanism—
I remember my terror each day that my name
would be called, forcing me either to conform or to stand
on principle. The result of the latter course would almost
certainly have led to enduring similar consequences to
those I had experienced earlier during the active years of
the McCollum Case. To my great relief, I was never called
upon. My mother does not recall saying anything to the
school authorities, but now I assume they must have
known the situation and were careful to avoid a conflict.
CHANGES IN THE POLITICAL CLIMATE
A more liberal climate came with the mild “thaw” in the Cold
War. Among many persons
with whom I came into contact
during the mid to late
1950s, there was an almost
grudging respect for the
action my mother had taken.
With the growing unrest of
the civil rights movement
and the Vietnam War, the
family connection with the
case became a positive distinction.
By the early 1970s, due
primarily to the burgeoning
University of Illinois, Champaign
had become a highly
transient city. Most of the
new arrivals knew little or
nothing of the McCollum
Case. Even among the local
population, those who had
any memory at all of the
case tended to confuse it
with the later civil liberties
cases which involved prayer
and Bible reading in the
public schools. Elsewhere,
where there was no direct
connection with the once
notorious trial, the case generally
was forgotten. Liberals,
if they thought about the
church-state issue at all,
were likely to take the “wall of separation” proposition for
granted; fundamentalists, and the religious right in general,
were as yet too disorganized politically to successfully challenge
the demarcation established by the Supreme Court of
what was Caesar’s and what was God’s.
With the election of Richard Nixon in 1968, all of this
began to change. The trend was reinforced by the subsequent
ascendancy of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Both of these
figures were heavily assisted by important support from the
religious right. These two presidents, representing the right
wing of the Republican Party, between them, with added
help from George H.W. and Bush Jr, have appointed a
majority of the justices on the United States Supreme Court.
Already, a noticeable change appears to have occurred in the
court’s perception of the church-state relationship.
Many civil libertarians, including myself, view this
trend away from strict separation as alarming. Without
question, my connection with the McCollum Case is an
influencing factor. The trial and its aftermath posed difficult
times for my family and the thought that it may all
have been for naught brings with it a strong sense of personal
frustration and futility.
Of much greater importance is the threat to the constitutional
principle involved: “Congress shall make no law
respecting an establishment of religion or prohibit the free
exercise thereof…” This lofty statement of public policy
and fundamental law is elemental to the survival of a free
society. It is based upon the simple common sense notion
that the best way to avoid religious strife, which has
caused so much pain and suffering over the centuries, is
by maintaining to the maximum extent possible, governmental
neutrality in the field of sectarian affairs.
The Founding Fathers had first-hand knowledge of the
problems which occurred
when there was mingling of
church and state. As if European
history had not provided
examples enough, the
were the more immediate
examples of religious intolerance
as it existed in many of
the thirteen states just prior
to the adoption of the Constitution.
The majority of our early
settlers came from countries
where church and
state were not separated
but were linked or interrelated.
Many of them had
suffered for their religious
beliefs and many of them
settled this country in religious
communities. Ironically
enough, although
they were seeking religious
freedom for themselves,
they did not always want to
extend that freedom to others
of differing beliefs.
Backed up by the precedents
set by Roger Williams
and the Virginia Declaration
of Rights, James Madison and
others felt that the best course
was for a definite separation of
church and state, affording the protection of minority rights,
religious and otherwise. Accordingly the Bill of Rights was
proposed and adopted, establishing definite limitations upon
the power of the Federal Government. After the passage of the
Fourteenth Amendment, and through Court interpretation,
similar limitations were placed on the states. In theory at least,
these guarantees of individual liberty stand, irrespective of the
majority will at any given time or place. CONTESTING VIEWS OF DEMOCRACY,
EDUCATION, AND RIGHTS
Unfortunately, a large percentage, perhaps a
majority, of the American public docs not
understand the Constitution and the essential
protections it affords minorities. This failing
is well expressed in a letter received by
Vashti McCollum during the progress of her
case through the courts. The person wrote:
“We are a Democracy and in a Democracy
the majority rules. The majority of people
believe in religious education so why don’t
you shut your big mouth you old bag.”
What the letter’s author failed to realize
is that a democracy can only exist where
people are free to disagree, where divergent
views are respected and, when necessary,
protected by the power and authority of
the government. Without such guarantees,
no individual or group would be secure
from either the prejudices and persecution
of a settled majority or the occasional and
fleeting hysteria of the mob.
Many who were opposed to Mrs.
McCollum, either failed to understand the
nature of the fight, or deliberately distorted
the consequences in the event of her victory.
Irrespective of the basis – ignorance or
deception – the arguments often sounded
the same:
“…what is to be said of our Christian
civilization when the Psalms of David and
the story of Jesus are excluded from schools
that may teach Karl Marx and the origin of
species every day of the year? This Supreme
Court ban does not apply to the Communist
manifesto: It applies to the Golden rule
and the Sermon on the Mount.”
The inclusion of Bible study as a part of
a survey course in religion would not only
be appropriate, but may be essential as the
reading of the Communist Manifesto in a
course on economic history. Singing of
Christmas carols was also mentioned as
quite likely falling under the ban of the
McCollum Decision. Concerning this,
Vashti McCollum wrote:
“Throughout my own public school
attendance I enjoyed and looked forward
to the annual Christmas carol sing on the
last day before Christmas vacation started.”
She, as her children, loved to sing
Christmas carols; and caroling often
occurred in the public schools her children
attended. She never objected. She might
have been critical of the practice only if it
were a part of a religious pageant.
Vashti McCollum, start to finish, was
interested only in the elimination of sectarian
religious indoctrination in the public
schools. The essential difference between
education and indoctrination was summed
up by Anton J. Carlson, noted physiologist
from the University of Chicago. He was sent
to Springfield, the state capital, during the
witch-hunting days of the 1950s to appear
before a committee of the legislature. The
solons were concerned about subversive
teaching at institutions of higher learning in
Illinois. He was asked, “Do you teach Communism
at the University of Chicago?”
The elderly scientist thoughtfully
responded, “Yes, we teach about Communism
at the University of Chicago…(pause)…
we also teach about syphilis, that doesn’t
mean we recommend it.”
It is my feeling that the McCollum Case
represents an excellent case study in support
of a strict observance of the Bill of
Rights, in general, and the prevention of
“an establishment of religion,” in particular.
The intrusion of the religious classes
into the Champaign schools was divisive.
That was the experience of James Terry
McCollum and of his family as well. Other
individuals and groups, Jews in particular,
also were affected negatively, though most
refrained from active protest.
Vashti Cromwell McCollum died on
August 30, 2006. She was the last adult
prominently associated with the case to
pass from the scene. And she was remembered,
not only in her home town newspaper,
but in the TIMES in New York to the
TIMES of Los Angeles. She passed away
with the uneasy feeling that the constitutional
principle for which she successfully
fought was far from secure.

About Dannel McCollum

Dannel McCollum, a former Champaign mayor and a Democratic candidate for the state Senate in 2002, is a historian and a freelance writer.
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