Remembering Mulford Q. Sibley

I met Mulford Q. Sibley in the fall of 1972. A colleague and I were working to start a new chapter of the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union, one near our college in rural Minnesota, so we invited Professor Sibley of the Political Science Department at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities Campus. He was kind enough to come, spoke on civil liberties to a packed hall, and helped us raise awareness and money to get the Minnesota Valley Chapter of the MCLU underway.

I crossed paths again with Dr. Sibley in the summer of 1984 when I was a participant in his National Endowment for the Humanities Seminar on Utopian Literature. I got to know Mulford well in this setting. My research project for the seminar was a paper arguing that Plato’s Republic was a dystopia, not a utopia. While Mulford disagreed, he appreciated my work and suggested that I send it to a journal for consideration. His encouragement led to my first publication on Plato.

Mulford Q. Sibley was already notorious when I met him. He was an outspoken opponent of the US war in Vietnam, often speaking on the campus green, bullhorn in hand, at U. of M. anti-war rallies. Mulford, a member of the Society of Friends (Quakers), was a life-long pacifist-activist who had spoken against WW II as well. Born in 1912, he earned his PhD in1939 and taught at Stanford before moving to the University of Minnesota in 1948.

Having been a socialist from his youth, Sibley was often accused of being a communist, especially during the McCarthy era –when Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin led a public witch-hunt for communists on behalf of the House Un-American Activities Committee. While Sibley never was a communist, the frequent accusations led him to begin wearing red ties, just to keep everyone guessing. The red tie became his signature attire. He once told me that if he was expected to wear a tie in academic circles (as academics were in those days), then it might as well be red, and it always was.

Sibley was a prolific writer and speaker on pacifism, civil disobedience, and utopianism. His many publications include articles and books on these topics. My favorite is his highly respected The Quiet Battle: Writings on the Theory and Practice of Nonviolent Resistance, an anthology of major –as well as less well-known—sources on pacifism and nonviolence, meticulously edited, with rich and insightful Introduction and Concluding Reflections by Professor Sibley.

There are many tales to be told of Sibley’s adventures as a pacifist in the academy from the early 1940s to the late 1980s. One particularly telling episode is sufficient to describe the character of this man.∗

Among the most popular teachers at the University, Sibley openly advocated leftist, pacifist, freethinking causes. As an outspoken critic of the US war in Vietnam, Sibley was the faculty advisor of the Student Peace Union, a campus club. This small role led to controversy in the summer of 1963 when a legionnaire attending the annual state American Legion Convention in Minneapolis introduced a resolution demanding that the Minnesota state legislature investigate the Student Peace Union for possible communist influences. The Minneapolis Tribune reported “a roar of aye votes.” The resolution was sent not only to the state legislature but also to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Neither rushed to investigate.

That fall The Minnesota Dailey, the student paper, editorialized about the hunt for communists on campus. The editorial argued that while there may be a communist or two in the group, the Student Peace Union was not “a communist front organization.” Professor Sibley was annoyed by the apologetic tone of the editorial defending the SPU. To Sibley, the point was academic freedom, period. He wrote to the Dailey, “I would like to see one or two communist professors on the faculty, plus a Student Communist Club, the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism, a Society for the Promotion of Free Love, a League for the Overthrow of Government by Jeffersonian Violence, an Anti-Automation League, and, perhaps, a Nudist Club. “We need students who challenge orthodoxies. Planting seeds of doubt and subversion help create moral and intellectual progress.”

To many, the list was an obvious tweak at the narrow mindedness behind the resolution, but to others it was proof of subversion by a faculty member of the University. Sibley’s remarks were reprinted widely in Minnesota papers generating predictable outrage. One of Sibley’s neighbors, a member of the St. Paul City Council, wrote the state legislature demanding that Sibley be fired. On campus Sibley’s popularity grew. Students wore “Nudist Club” pins and invited the councilman to debate Sibley on campus. Twelve hundred students attended the televised debate, students hooting at the councilman and cheering Sibley. Public sentiment urged the legislature to act.

The Minnesota Education Committee held hearings. The Lt. Governor reminded everyone that Regents governed the university gaining national attention. William F. Buckley weighed in titling his column “The Professor in Left Field” asking, ‘why not add a couple of Nazi’s advocating genocide to the campus?’ By spring of ’64 the House Un-American Activities Committee decided to hold hearings on “the growing threat.” In June seventeen administrators from the U of M including President Wilson and Regent’s Chair Dr. Charles Mayo went to the state capitol to testify on university policies for hiring, promotion and firing faculty. The Lt. Governor again reminded everyone that Regents governed the U of M.

Professor Sibley never apologized and went on teaching popular classes. The issue had pretty well blown-over by the spring of 1965 when he was invited to speak on the war in Vietnam in Winnipeg, Canada. Canadian immigration denied him entry because he advocated the establishment of campus clubs promoting communism, atheism, free love and nudity. Publicity led to the involvement of Minnesota US Senator Eugene McCarthy and Vice President Hubert Humphrey as well as outrage in Canada. Eventually reason prevailed and Sibley was invited to return to speak in Winnipeg.

When Professor Sibley turned 70 he was faced with mandatory retirement from the U of M. Lucky for me, he was hired to teach jurisprudence by the Law School at Hamline University where I was teaching in the College of Liberal Arts. This allowed for weekly luncheon-discussions about pacifism, my then-current writing project. Mulford disagreed with my ‘backing into pacifism by degree’ –for him pacifism was the result of a conversion experience and then radiated outward from the individual into the world—but, once again, he encouraged me to seek publication for what became my first book.

In 1987 Mulford traveled to India to teach Gandhi’s politics. Unfortunately he became ill while there and had to return home before finishing the academic year. He was increasingly frail, but I was thrilled to get an advance copy of my book on pacifism to him, and to have a discussion about it, a few months before his death in 1989. At his funeral I was one of a dozen out of a hundred attendees wearing a red tie, including Mulford’s son Martin.

Duane L. Cady
Professor of Philosophy Emeritus
Hamline University