John Spencer Bassett published his article, "Stirring Up the Fires of Race Antipathy," in the South Atlantic Quarterly in October, 1903. Bassett wanted to draw attention to the Democratic Party’s appeals to racist sentiments and discussions of white supremacy that appeared in the local press. Bassett could not have predicted the outcry that his article elicited. Richard Hofstadter and Walter Metzger observed in The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States, “Himself a son of the South, Bassett thought he could speak these unpleasant truths to his kith and kin with complete impunity. But he had struck a painful nerve of sensitive Southern conscience.” Bassett’s article was quickly attacked in the press.
Josephus Daniels, publisher of the Raleigh News and Observer, led the criticism of Bassett’s article. On November 1, the News and Observer printed Bassett's article in its entirety. Daniels' headline revealed his sentiments, "SOUTHERN LEADERS SLANDERED." On the editorial page, Daniels said that it was "inconceivable that a man of Prof. Bassett's education and study of history could make such a statement unless we charitably believe he is under the spell of negropholist [sic] hypnotism."
With this editorial, there began a daily attack upon Bassett and Trinity College in the News and Observer. On November 3, Daniels' headline declared there was a "FLAME OF INDIGNATION" over the state and "The People Feel that Professor Bassett's Utterances on the Negro are an Outrage." The article stated, "The editorial in question has been the subject of much adverse comment on the streets, in hotel lobbies and in the homes of all who have read the article. The consensus of opinion is that Prof. Bassett should be compelled to resign his position on the faculty of Trinity College at once." On November 10, a correspondent to the paper referred to the professor as John Spencer bASSett, a spelling repeated by Daniels in later articles to encourage public scorn.
During November, many North Carolina newspapers published negative comments about Bassett. The Greenville Eastern Reflector characterized Bassett as having a "measly mind" and as being a "spectacular viper." The Wilmington Weekly Star said that an examination should be made at once to determine Bassett's sanity. The Lexington Dispatch declared that "not a man has been discovered who says that the Professor is either sane or correct."
The News and Observer began to reprint unfavorable extracts from other North Carolina newspapers. On November 8, the front page of the paper included an article reprinted from Webster's Weekly that linked Bassett to the evil influences of the Duke family and called for the Methodist Church to withdraw its support from Trinity College. Other papers took up this denunciation of the College. A writer from the Argus declared, "If I had a son under Prof. Bassett, I would wire him to pack his trunk and leave on [the] first train." A few North Carolina newspapers defended Bassett. The Durham Morning Herald opposed the expulsion of Bassett from Trinity College. J.W. Bailey, editor of the Biblical Recorder, said that North Carolina should not condemn Bassett or remove him from his position, for such an action would menace the cause of free speech and free thought in North Carolina.
Bassett also received support from President Kilgo and the Trinity College faculty. At a faculty meeting on November 19, Kilgo praised Bassett and his work at the college. Kilgo spoke of how much Bassett meant to him personally. The student body passed a resolution that urged Bassett not to resign and pledged their support.
James Southgate, chairman of the Board of Trustees, received a flurry of letters from alumni and from John F. Crowell, former president of Trinity College, that defended Bassett's right to academic freedom. Walter Hines Page, editor of World's Work and who later became the United States' Ambassador to Great Britain, wrote Benjamin N. Duke a series of letters defending Bassett. Page said, "It is the best chance that ever came or that ever could come for Trinity to show that it is the home of free thought and free speech."
The faculty at Trinity College was firmly behind Bassett's right to academic freedom. By the day of the Board of Trustees' meeting, on December 1, every member of the faculty had written his resignation, and given it to President Kilgo, to be presented if the board voted to ask for Bassett's resignation.
At the board meeting, Southgate read a statement from the faculty, which spoke to the principle of academic freedom. The faculty did not agree with Bassett's arguments but they did support his right to voice his opinion. They challenged the Board of Trustees to stand up to "the open enemies of the college" and "follow Thomas Jefferson's beliefs and defend the illimitable freedom of the human mind." In the early hours of December 2, the trustees voted 18 to 7 not to request Bassett’s resignation.
Despite the division that the Bassett Affair created within Trinity and the negative publicity it received, the college benefited from the Board’s decision. The trustees had refused to have their actions dictated by public opinion or personal prejudice. There were now firm principles in place to guide future decisions about academic freedom.
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