San Diego's Open Forum -- Birth and Death

By TRUDIE CASPER
A Local Author and Frequent Contributor to this Journal

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In 1918, when an investigative reporter was called a "muckraker", Lincoln Steffens flaunted the sobriquet with relish. His fame -- or notoriety -- guaranteed wide readership. So a number of San Diego's more thoughtful citizens were chagrined when Editor William H. Porterfield published a letter from Steffens in the San Diego Sun, on May 28, of that year.1

". . . . dark forces have corrupted San Diego," the letter read in part, "until it has come to be regarded, I find, as one of the least liberal, most timid of American cities."2

Steffens had reason to complain.

Dr. Howard B. Bard, minister of the First Unitarian Church -- and later mayor of San Diego -- had invited Steffens to address his congregation. The reverend doctor knew Steffens aroused controversy. But Dr. Bard had never run away from a fight. During his previous ministry in Grand Rapids, he had learned to handle intellectual dynamite. There, in the early 1900s, public forums regularly followed his Sunday morning services. Often, when an I.W.W. (Industrial Workers of the World) speaker took the Michigan podium, irate citizens stepped into the aisle with fists curled. Dr. Bard persuaded them not to beat up the speaker -- at least, not in the church.3

Called to the ministry of San Diego's First Unitarian Church in 1912, Dr. Bard brought his public forum ideas with him. Forums were not new to the town. The San Diego Lyceum and Debating Club had been founded in 1856,4 only six years after the city was chartered by the new State of California. Among the subjects debated that first year were: "Is Capital Punishment for Crime Justified?" and "Is the Use of Spiritus Liquer [sic] Beneficial to Mankind?"5

Soon national figures -- religious, literary, scientific and political -- were addressing audiences in churches, meeting halls and theatres. San Diegans, like other Americans throughout the country, were seeking ways to supplement their schooling and keep abreast of the times. But in the vigilante atmosphere generated by World War I, the announcement of two lectures by Lincoln Steffens was a bit of a bombshell. "The Patriotic Citizens of San Diego," never otherwise identified in public, protested. A committee of the organization addressed a letter to the trustees of the church with carbon copies to the newspapers:

"The committee," stated the letter, "has been making a quiet investigation into the facts attendant upon the use of the church by Lincoln Steffens . . . ." The trustees were offered "the first opportunity to determine the right or wrong of the matter and to take such action as the circumstances may suggest. . . ."6

The minutes of the Unitarian Church, dated April 1918, recorded:

"Lincoln Steffens is in town (for two addresses) on the subject of an easy peace for Germany. The mayor is Louis J. Wilde. Much of the populace is 'wilde,' too. They are up in arms, literally. Together with police and the military they swell into Sixth Street and surround the church."7

The first lecture on "The Russian Revolution" went on as scheduled. The second lecture was entitled, "Peace." But by the second night the crowd had grown to a mob.

Fearing violence, Police Chief S.P. McMullen met Steffens at the church door and refused to allow him to proceed. Dr. Bard pointed out that Steffens' lecture tour had been approved by Col. E.M. House, adviser to President Woodrow Wilson. He assured the authorities that the speech on "Peace" had been cleared by Federal officials. But the mob was muttering and the police chief opted for peace in San Diego. The Reverend Bard mounted the podium and announced the lecture had been canceled.8

"We are patriotic, law-abiding citizens and we will disperse as such," he said. The crowd left peaceably, trying for a glimpse of Steffens, but he did not appear.9

The San Diego-Steffens incident became a cause celebre, an item of nation-wide news,10 embarrassing to many of the city's intellectuals. Among them was one of the giants of the time, Lyman J. Gage, Secretary of the Treasury under Presidents McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.

Gage considered the problem of the canceled speech with like-minded residents: George A. Garrett, labor leader and journalist; E.M. Scofield, World War I shipbuilder, president of the Pacific Marine and Construction Co,; William E. Ritter, director, Scripps Institution of Oceanography; W. Templeton Johnson, architect, who headed the trustees of the First Unitarian Church; Douglas Young, Church trustee, later a founder of Qualitee Dairy Products Co.; Judge Spencer M. Marsh, of the Superior Court, and Dr. Bard.11

Their deliberations resulted in a call to interested San Diegans to meet with them in the Churchill Hotel, the evening of October 27, 1919. More than 60 persons responded. By the end of the meeting the San Diego Open Forum had been organized. Judge Marsh wrote the statement of purpose:

"The Open Forum is founded upon faith in democracy. It sees nothing to fear from public discussion. It appeals to that spirit of inquiry which seeks to learn of our problems and aid in the solution of them. It plans to bring together face-to-face the contending forces in society, trusting that by knowing each other's views they may be able to resolve their differences. It is essentially American in its program and purposes."12

At the outset, San Diegans asked, "Where does the Forum stand -- to the right -- or the left?" They soon discovered it stood dead center with its ears wide open, offering a platform for the expression of differing points of view, and an opportunity to question the speaker or speakers on issues presented.

Programs were held in the Unitarian Church and scheduled for biweekly Sunday evenings. But often, with the opportunity to invite controversial figures to speak, because they happened to be in the vicinity, weekly programs were presented. Occasionally, it was necessary to call a meeting in the middle of the week.

Sunday or weekday evenings, long lines queued outside the church.13 There were no membership fees. Expenses were met by voluntary contributions and collections taken up at the close of the meetings.14

Turbulence was narrowly averted on a number of occasions, and differences were underscored at the very first meeting, November 30, 1919. The subject was "Japan," and the session was a warm one. Paul Scharrenberg, a labor leader, spoke for Japanese exclusion; Payston Treat, a Stanford professor, against exclusion, and Kawakami, Nipponese mystery man, represented Japan. Dr. Bard served as moderator. (The church charged the Forum $5.00 to cover light, heat and janitorial expenses.)15

In the 1920s, with the Ku Klux Klan much in evidence in San Diego, the Forum invited a Klan leader to explain what it was all about. Catholic, Jewish and Negro factions tried to prevent the Klan's Dr. L.F. Lukie from speaking. But the Forum presented him on schedule. Dr. Lukie did his job well. Feeling was so intense in the auditorium, the speaker was rushed to a back room and locked in until the crowd dispersed.16

Equally powerful groups tried to keep Kate Richards O'Hare from lecturing on crime after her release from jail. She had been imprisoned for radical utterances during World War I. Many opposed the presentation of this conscientious objector even though she had been paroled by President Wilson and pardoned by President Coolidge. The American Legion, V.F.W., D.A.R. and the Hammer Club were backed by the newspapers in efforts to prevent her from speaking.

Open Forum board members didn't take the shouting about Kate O'Hare seriously. But the police did. When board members arrived at the auditorium that Sunday evening they found two motorcycle officers and five patrolmen outside plus the chief and 32 detectives inside to keep the peace. The program proceeded according to plan and decorum prevailed.17

As the programs continued without untoward incidents, newspaper editorials, as well as popular sentiment, began to endorse Open Forum policy. In 1935, the San Diego Union stated on its editorial page:

The Open Forum celebrates its 16th anniversary at tonight's annual meeting, and thereby claims title as the oldest continuous non-legislative forum of free public discussion in the United States. The service of the Open Forum in San Diego goes beyond the distinguished list of speakers it has brought to the city -- though that list includes two prime ministers of European powers, at least one Nobel prize-winner, an ambassador or two, many a world authority on economics, politics and science. For 16 years the Open Forum has widened the borders of this community to embrace the nation of which it is a part, the world -- and, indeed, all the universe of modern hypothesis. Through it, San Diegans have participated in local controversy, in world controversy and in speculation soaring through illimitable space. The people have heard their civic leaders debate local issues on the Forum platform. They have heard outstanding figures in national affairs talk to them plainly about issues involving the republic's future course. They have heard the nations debate. And they have seen and heard the philosophers, mathematicians, artists and physicists -- emissaries of a realm unbounded. Only a forum genuinely open could have served this community on so many fronts. We must recognize the Open Forum's anniversary with gratitude and with something more important than gratitude -- with respect.

San Diego's Open Forum continued to flourish throughout the 1930s. But following World War II, it faced rising competition: the proliferation of colleges in the area, financially able to engage renowned speakers at high fees; the increasing opportunities for entertainment in a growing city, and the accelerating fascination with television programs. Nevertheless, by reducing the schedule to monthly meetings from October through May, instituting and gradually raising membership dues up to $6.00 per year -- $2.00 for students, with higher membership categories of $25, $50 and $100 -- the Open Forum continued to attract loyal audiences through the 1950s and 1960s.18 They found the programs as exciting mentally if less threatening physically than those held in earlier years.

No police were on hand on November 8, 1964. But the audience was visibly shaken when W.H. Ferry, then a vice president of the Fund for the Republic, described the possible results of cybernation -- the mating of the automatic production machine with the computer.

"Not only will there be millions of unskilled people who may never, in their lifetime, find a job," said Ferry, "but cybernatics will soon begin to threaten the employment of white-collar workers. In time, middle management and junior executives will also be eliminated -- the men who boss the men who run the machines.19 Eventually, we may have to change our views about the personal worth of productive labor."

Celebrating its golden anniversary, the Forum's 1969-70 printed program rephrased its original statement of purpose:

The San Diego Open Forum espouses no cause nor political, social or economic theories. It seeks in this, its 50th year -- as it did in 1919 -- only to provide a platform for the free discussion of ideas by proponents of varying viewpoints.20

In the 1970s, competition for lecture audiences continued to rise while Open Forum membership and attendance increasingly dwindled. In 1974, a motion to dissolve the Forum was adopted by the Board of Directors at its May 22 meeting.21

On June 13, of that year, President Bryant Evans addressed a letter to the organization's members, stating:

". . . . after 55 years, the San Diego Open Forum has ceased to exist. . . . The decision (to dissolve the Forum) followed a period of more than two years in which the board sought vainly to find a formula that would restore the vigor that the Forum had demonstrated in its first half century of life. Finally, it was recognized that the need for sponsoring public discussion of important questions was now being fulfilled by other entities in the community, including its several universities and the electronic media."22

Its time had passed. But during its fifty-five years, the Open Forum helped San Diego grow from a provincial town to a major American City.  

NOTES

1. San Diego Sun, May 28, 1918, p. 4.

2. Letter, Open Forum Collection, San Diego History Center Library and Manuscripts Collection. Hereinafter cited as SDHC Library.

3. Willis Werner, Fact-O-Graph, San Diego Sun, 1937. Clipping in First Unitarian Church Scrapbooks.

4. "Culture" Folder, Vertical File, SDHC Library.

5. Historical Background Notes, Open Forum Collection, SDHC Library.

6. Ruth Cotton, First Unitarian Church Scrapbooks.

7. Minutes, First Unitarian Church Trustees' Meeting, dated April, 1918, apparently by James Britton. (Church built 1910 was located at Sixth and Cedar Streets.)

8. San Diego Sun, April 27, 1918, p. 1.

9. Eunice Pierce, History of First Unitarian Church.

10. San Diego Sun, May 28, 1918, p. 4. (The Steffens letter was published in full in the San Francisco Bulletin, the New York Evening Post and copied by newspapers throughout the country.

11. 100th Anniversary Centennial Celebration, Brochure, First Unitarian Church, p. 48.

12. Ibid.

13. Ruth Price Weis, an early and continuing Open Forum Board member, Personal Interview, October 30, 1979.

14. Founding Statement document, Open Forum Collection, SDHC Library.

15. 100th Anniversary brochure, First Unitarian Church, p. 50.

16. Rev. John Ruskin Clark, Radio Address, December 2, 1962.

17. Willis Werner, San Diego Sun, 1937.

18. Printed programs, Open Forum Collection, SDHC Library.

19. San Diego Union, November 19, 1964.

20. 1969-1970 Golden Anniversary Program, SDHC Library.

21. Minutes, May 22, 1974, Open Forum Collection, SDHC Library.

22. Bryant Evans Letter to Membership, Open Forum Collection, SDHC Library.