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Capturing a decisive moment in the University’s history

The Daily Tar Heel planted its editorial shoulder squarely behind opposition to the Speaker Ban Law.

Jock Lauterer stands in a tree he took a photo from decades ago.
Jock Lauterer, Senior Lecturer at the UNC School of Media and Journalism, finds the exact same perch he was in when he made an iconic image of Frank Wilkinson speaking at the McCorkle Place wall fifty years earlier on March 2, 1966 during the speaker ban at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Photo by Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

This month, the campus marks the 50th anniversary of two showdowns (on March 2 and again on March 9) on Franklin Street and McCorkle Place over the state’s infamous Speaker Ban Law. The law, passed by the General Assembly three years earlier, prohibited known Communists and others considered subversive from speaking at state-supported universities. Jock Lauterer, then a photographer for The Daily Tar Heel, captured the drama of those days with two iconic photos taken with his trusty World War II-era Rolleicord camera. Now a senior lecturer in the School of Media and Journalism, Lauterer tells the story of how he got one of those pictures by climbing a tree. Among the hundreds of students in the crowd captured in Lauterer’s wide shot was classmate Lynne Vernon-Feagans. Unbeknownst to either of them, the iconic photo would become part of their unexpected love story 28 years later. Vernon-Feagans, now a faculty member at the School of Education and the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center tells that story.

“Luck is the residue of design.”
– Branch Rickey, general manager, the Brooklyn Dodgers

Looking back at that photograph made 50 years ago this month, I realize I was just plain lucky.

Lucky to be born to a camera-toting mother, born into a community that nurtured a young boy with a Kodak, born into an age rich with news events happening right before my lens, and born a son of the University – where, on a cloudy March day at the old stone wall by McCorkle Place, events intersected and conspired to help me make an image of one of the most decisive moments in our university’s history.

f/8 and be there

As an undergraduate in the ’60s, my life revolved around The Daily Tar Heel (aka, the cheapest fraternity on campus). With easy access afforded by press credentials, I got to photograph many of the political icons of our era: both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, North Carolina Governors Dan Moore and Robert Scott, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, Alabama Gov. George Wallace and presidential candidate Hubert H. Humphrey.

In those turbulent days, it seemed as though folks were always in the streets of Chapel Hill demonstrating about some cause, whether it was for Civil Rights or against the Vietnam War. They also protested the infamous Speaker Ban Law – an egregious breach of free speech and an affront to everything a great public university stands for.

Out of necessity, a young photographer had to learn how best to cover those breaking news events. For a Civil Rights march down Franklin Street, a bicycle let me stay out in front of the action. A Klan rally required the accompaniment of the DTH’s beefiest reporter, Mike Yopp, to run interference for me. And for large static demonstrations, I learned to look for second floor office windows for aerial views so I could capture “the big picture.”

The DTH, proudly independent then as now, planted its editorial shoulder squarely behind the wheel of those movements – especially opposition to the Speaker Ban Law. It is no accident that DTH editor Ernie McCrary’s name is out there etched in brass on the campus marker honoring the student leaders of the Speaker Ban Law protest movement.

How I got the picture

Like many young DTH journalists, I lived, breathed, ate, drank and slept the student newspaper, then located in an upstairs gaggle of fusty offices in Graham Memorial. The basement darkroom, shared with the yearbook, our rival publication, was a total train wreck. So in my junior year, after shooting for the DTH for two years, I set up my own darkroom in the garage room of my apartment on Henderson Street – stinky, nasty, unheated, un-air conditioned and unvented. But it was mine. I loved it.

And it was strategically located directly across from McCorkle Place.

So when, on the afternoon of March 2, 1966, from my upstairs window I spotted the crowd gathering on the campus side of the old rock wall facing Franklin Street, I knew what I needed to do. I wanted to show the scope of the crowd, the largest I’d ever seen on campus. But it would be no good shooting from across the street; I had to get closer. Hustling down and across Franklin, I surveyed the scene.

Where was the speaker, Frank Wilkinson, going to stand? And most strategically, where was Student Body President Paul Dickson seated? That would certainly be the sweet spot.

An old tree-climber from childhood, I clambered up an accommodating tree to afford a high oblique perspective of the action spreading out below my WW II-era Rolleicord.

A week later, on March 9, Lauterer photographed the confrontation between speaker Herbert Aptheker and campus police.

B+ at best

If today one of my photo students turned in that shot for my Beginning Photojournalism class, I might comment, “not bad,” my code for a B.

The light is good, I’ll grant you that. Nice, flat, dispersed even light. Perfect for black and white.

The composition is square; not the most artistic of framing. The strong diagonal line of the wall has nice energy. I’ll give the young photographer from ’66 a point for that design element.

But the picture really doesn’t capture the peak action, the energy of the moment. So it gets a B.

Then why, I must ask, has this image become a local icon?

The photograph is not that great. But the moment it captures is.

The image has staying power because it marks a decisive moment in our state’s history, catches the sense of gravitas and conveys the sense of what it felt like to be there when the earth moved beneath the grass of McCorkle Place.

And the faces in the crowd.

Paul Dickson, who so ably led the struggle, clapping with well-earned satisfaction; future School of Education Dean Bill McDiarmid standing pensively in the back; DTH newsies Joe DePriest, Scott Goodfellow, Treva Mitchell and Carol Gallant all looking on expectantly.

And the face of a “coed” who I would meet 27 years later and marry…(but I’ll let someone else tell that story).

And the hundreds of other students and faculty, frozen in time and emulsion, there out of concern or curiosity, anger or angst. As if to say by being here, on our campus, our turf, defying this reprehensible law: you must hear our voices.

Hark, you judges and legislators.

Hark, you people of North Carolina.

Hark, the sound.

“Click.”

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