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Debating Race at Princeton in the 1940s, Part II: Roundtable News and the Liberal Union

This is the second post in a two-part series examining Princeton University’s debates over admitting African Americans in the 1940s. These debates began in earnest due to the dedication of one undergraduate in the Class of 1943, Francis Lyons “Frank” Broderick, whose efforts were the focus of the first post in this series. Here, I examine what our holdings reveal about Broderick’s legacy on campus toward the end of World War II and in the early postwar period.

By April C. Armstrong *14

To my teachers and friends on the Princeton faculty
my colleagues on the Daily Princetonian
who are fighting against white supremacy at Princeton

–Francis Broderick’s senior thesis dedication page, 1943

As his senior thesis suggests, Frank Broderick wasn’t alone in his fight to transform what it meant to be a Princetonian. After his graduation from Princeton, discussion of race on campus continued in his absence throughout World War II and beyond. Others made arguments similar to the ones Broderick had made about the conflicts between the ideals Americans were fighting for abroad and their own practices at home. These students also met resistance from fellow Princetonians, but in the process, changed opinions. They weren’t content to simply make arguments, however. They took action and set Princeton on a new trajectory.

James Everett Ward ’47 and Arthur Jewell Wilson ’47 outside Laughlin Hall, 1946. Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box MP215, Image No. 5644.

A few students wrote editorials in Princeton’s Roundtable News in 1944. Like Broderick had before them in the Daily Princetonian, which largely suspended publication 1943-1945, they pushed readers to make connections between the war abroad and domestic policy. In the March 23, 1944, issue of Roundtable, John Kemeny ’47 *49 accused Princetonians of “copying the Nazi party” in their “hysterical” responses to the admission of African American naval officers in 1943. Kemeny referred to having heard students “talk about forming lynching parties” after their arrival. Edward Kessler ’44 called for an end to discriminatory policies in the April 27, 1944 issue, asking, “How can we fight a world war to destroy the race theory and propagate the very same theory at home?” Thomas J. Wertenbaker, Jr. ’43 responded that he was “astonished” that Kemeny and others made these arguments, and that racial prejudice was no greater threat to democracy than lust or egotism. Debates continued, but a catalyst for tangible change didn’t arrive until after the war’s end.

John Bunzel ’46, whose education had been interrupted by his service in World War II, returned to campus in 1946 to finish his final two years of college. He later said his time in the Army had sparked a passion for civil rights. He led Princeton University students who shared Broderick’s commitments to form the Liberal Union in 1946 and served as its president until his graduation in 1948.

Governing Council of the Liberal Union, 1947. Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box MP150, Image No. 3988.

The Liberal Union saw the implementation of new policies as the responsibility of the students as well as the administration.They adopted ending discriminatory admissions as their major platform. Well before the Kennedy administration coined the term “affirmative action” to describe it, they advocated purposeful recruiting among minority groups:

The Liberal Union stands opposed to racial and religious discrimination. In particular, on the campus it shall support and work for a policy on the part of the University Administration of accepting applicants on an equal basis regardless of race, creed or color. This necessitates the open encouragement of admission of minority groups which perhaps have felt in the past a policy of discrimination was being practiced against them, and the acceptance of responsibility on the part of undergraduates to help in their proper assimilation in the college community.

There were still students opposed to these policies, but the Liberal Union gained support from faculty like Willard Thorp and Hadley Cantril; alumni who read about their efforts in the Princeton Alumni Weekly‘s full-page article about them on December 5, 1947; students who were persuaded to join in the cause; and civil rights leaders across the United States.

Liberal Union publicity brochure, ca 1947. Historical Subject Files (AC109), Box 203, Folder 20.

The Liberal Union had its own publication, New Century, in which readers could find material about a wide range of topics, including admissions and race. After the organization spent a year investigating attitudes on campus and existing policies, Bill Lucas ’47 and Don Rosenthal ’48 wrote in “The Negro at Princeton” (May 1948), “Princeton can offer the negro an education and a social life which he as a citizen is entitled to. But will it? That is largely up to us.”

State law began barring tax-exempt institutions from discrimination on the basis of race in New Jersey in 1945. Although official policy was that qualified applicants could not be denied on the basis of race, Princeton could continue to say qualified African Americans were not applying. Public perception discouraged applications in the belief that they would be automatically rejected. The Liberal Union, observing that administrators were not taking action to redress this, began recruiting applicants themselves. They wrote to more than 2,000 high schools to inform them that prospective African American students would be admitted if they met the requirements.

In 1948, the Liberal Union’s newsletter reported with satisfaction that their letter-writing campaign might be working. “The grapevine has it that the Class of 1953 has an excellent chance of including from two to six negroes in its composition.” (There ended up being three African Americans in the Class of 1953, bringing the total number of black undergraduates to four.) The Liberal Union kept writing letters and fielded inquiries from prospective African American students who responded. The administration began to get involved with answering some of the questions. These Princetonians may have oversold Princeton, intentionally or otherwise, to the African Americans they recruited, claiming “the door is open at Princeton to everyone.” The experiences of Princeton’s early black undergraduates somewhat contradicted this, as a variety of overt and subtle discriminatory attitudes continued to shape campus life. Nonetheless, many people considered the Liberal Union responsible for forcing Princeton’s admissions policies to change in fact rather than merely in theory.

The Liberal Union also organized an intercollegiate conference on race relations on campus in December 1947, following up on a similar conference at Swarthmore earlier that year. Students from 50 colleges attended Princeton’s conference, and representatives from each agreed that they wanted to establish similar efforts at their own schools. The the conference did not go uninterrupted, however; some Princeton students who did not support it set off two stink bombs at its opening session.

Like Broderick’s writing campaign, this effort had mixed response from alumni. Allan MacDougall, Jr. ’41 asserted that Princeton had the right to remain exclusionary. “I sincerely hope your Liberal Union fails. If it succeeds, Princeton is not the college I believe in,” he wrote in a letter appearing in the March 1948 issue of New Century. “I have nothing except good will for the Negroes and the Jews, but that doesn’t mean I want to live or associate with them constantly.”

Norman Horwitz ’46 disagreed, saying he’d been disappointed by the administration’s failure to act when Broderick had pushed them to do so, and this had soured his opinion of Princeton, where “nothing resulted” except “slogans and platitudes.” “As an alumnus, I have tended to disassociate myself from the University because I could not, with clear conscience, support policies which I considered hypocritical.” The Liberal Union had ignited Horwitz’s hopes. (New Century, March 1948)

Cover of New Century‘s Winter 1949 issue.

In the PAW, some of those who wrote in response to the forming of the Liberal Union accused them of communism, such as Clarence B. Mitchell of the Class of 1889, who wrote multiple letters on the subject in the winter of 1947-1948. Mitchell’s February 20, 1948 letter asserted,

Most advanced Socialists and Communists are fond of quoting Jefferson and Lincoln, who would turn in their graves… Jefferson did not include Negroes and Indians as people entitled to vote. Lincoln never freed all our Negroes, but only those in States at war with the Union. His action was purely a war measure.

While many alumni may have remained entrenched in their views, attitudes on campus were shifting. By the end of their first year, the Liberal Union had about 100 active members among students, faculty, and alumni. One of the students who joined them had been the president of the conservative equivalent of the Liberal Union, the Republican Club, but had become uncomfortable with his associations. Edmund “Mike” Keeley ’49 later said that he had not actually tried talking with his opponents previously, but an encounter with Richard Nixon at a Republican Club-sponsored event had left him unsettled enough that he went to chat with the leaders of the Liberal Union.

And the more I heard from them the more I thought that I believe in what they believe in. So after–I don’t know how long it was, almost a year, I think–of being president of the Republican Club, I resigned and wrote a thundering letter to the Princetonian, greeted with a thundering silence, saying that I am resigning from being president of the Republican club to join the Liberal Union. … I was disowned by most of my friends. … Anyway, my experience changed my politics.

Indeed, the opposition may have pushed some ambivalent students to join the cause. In 1948, Walter White, secretary of the NAACP, spoke in McCosh Hall at the invitation of the Liberal Union. During his talk, someone threw snowballs with rocks through the windows. White wrote in the Detroit Free Press that this event changed something in his audience. “There was a sternness on their faces which was stirring to see. What had been for some of them an abstract principle of academic democracy had been jelled by the puerile act of a few into a holy crusade.”

By the end of 1948, 85% of Princeton students polled supported the admission of African Americans, while 56% said they believed Princeton should actively recruit black applicants. The efforts of the Liberal Union may have been small, but they were significant, as they themselves noted that year. They had managed to attract 75 paid members on campus. “This seems small compared to an undergraduate enrollment of 3400,” Richard W. Murphy ’51 wrote in their newsletter, “but several alumni have told us that for Princeton, this is nothing short of amazing.”


Broderick, Francis Lyons. “They Too Sing America: A History of Negro Leadership Since 1895.” Senior Thesis, Princeton University, 1943.

Chicago Defender

Historical Subject Files (AC109)

Graduate Alumni Records (AC105)

New Century

Office of Communications Records (AC168)

Office of the Vice President and Secretary Records (AC190)

Papers of Princeton

Princeton Alumni Weekly

Princeton University Publications Collection (AC364)

Princetoniana Committee Oral History Records (AC259)

Undergraduate Academic Files 1921-2016 (AC198)

Undergraduate Alumni Files 1921-2008 (AC199)

For further reading:

Duckett, Alfred A. “Princeton Students Lose Double-V Fight But Color Bar Fight Goes On.” Chicago Defender, March 27, 1943.

Klein, Dan. “Ahead of His Time.” Princeton Alumni Weekly, December 20, 1995.

Rivers, Robert J., Jr. “Sankofa: Looking Back as We Move Forward.” Princeton Alumni Weekly, July 16, 2008.

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