Once upon a time, not so very long ago, Robin Hood and his merry band roamed Indiana University’s Bloomington campus. It was the 1950s and Senator Joseph McCarthy had unleashed a campaign to get rid of communism from every aspect of American society. In the spirit of the times, Mrs. Thomas J. White, a member of the Indiana textbook commission, demanded that books telling the story of Robin Hood, who robbed the rich to give to the poor, be banned in public schools because they promoted communism. Several IU students took up Robin Hood’s cause and while they did not rob the rich to give to the poor, they did defend students’ rights for free speech and academic freedom against repressive forces.
This unlikely movement was made up of a group of five students (Blas Davis, Ed Napier, Jeanine Carter, Bernard Bray, and Mary Dawson) who were members of the Roger Williams Fellowship, a youth group affiliated with the local First Baptist Church. They began their campaign in Spring 1954, by dyeing some chicken feathers green (a reference to Robin Hood) and attaching them to white buttons with slogans like “They’re your books; don’t let McCarthyism burn them” that they handed out to students across campus.
Students were generally supportive with positive comments from the student newspaper, The Indiana Daily Student, and the local television station. Some financial contributions allowed organizers to order more feathers and buttons once the first batch had been distributed. They distributed a statement of purpose, “This I Believe” with help from a printer in town, outlining their support for academic freedom and free speech while warning of the dangers that McCarthyism posed to these ideals. Faculty from the psychology department and the School of Law, as well as the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, signaled their agreement. However, the town’s newspaper, The Herald-Telephone, did not agree, calling them “dupes,” “long hairs,” and “puppets.” In the meantime, Green Feather support spread to the University of Wisconsin, Cornell University, the University of Michigan, and Purdue University.
Attempts by Green Feathers organizers to bring Sen. J. William Fulbright, a prominent critic of Sen. McCarthy, to campus were rejected by administrators who told them that only university approved organizations could use campus facilities for political purposes, citing a 1945 policy from the Board of Trustees.
Green Feather organizers applied for official recognition and submitted a constitution to the student senate, stating that they would be open to all students to promote political discussions from all points of view. The senate approved the constitution. Nevertheless, IU President Herman B Wells, BS’24, MA’27, LLD’62, opposed their application, fearing that university approval would be interpreted as endorsing the group’s initial anti-McCarthy position, again citing the 1945 policy.
The IU chapter of the American Association of University responded to Wells with a strong statement of support for the Green Feathers movement and affirming their commitment to the role of the university in promoting open discussion of controversial political issues. The AAUP criticized what they perceived as official squelching of student interest in compelling contemporary problems on a campus previously characterized as apathetic.
The Green Feathers movement had captured campus attention for most of the spring semester in 1954. However, as students left for the summer, interest in issues of free speech and academic freedom waned as did Sen. McCarthy’s popularity. The Army-McCarthy hearings that year were televised and thousands of Americans watched the Army’s attorney, Joseph Welch, publicly rebuke the Senator, who was later condemned by the U.S. Senate. When students returned to classes in the fall, the Green Feathers organizers did not resume their efforts to promote political discussions on campus. The movement was over.
What makes the Green Feathers incident so intriguing is that it occurred at a time when the common understanding of students in the 1950s was as “the Quiet Generation” which was generally true, not just at Indiana University but across the nation. However, some students across the country protested against Sen. McCarthy and his committee hearings. Their insistence on encouraging political discussions about controversial issues occurred not just on east or west coast elite campuses, but in the Midwest as well, setting the stage for future activists who fought for free speech, civil rights, and peace in Vietnam.
Like some later civil rights and peace advocates who would come after them, the Green Feather movement grew out of conversations that began in a church, the first Southern Baptist church in Bloomington. As members of the Roger Williams Fellowship group, they met for Wednesday night discussion and communal Sunday night suppers led by Dr. W. Douglas Rae, church adviser, and Miss Emily Watson, faculty adviser. The purpose of the group was to promote Christian social action in the community and on campus. Based on religious values and principles, the Green Feathers activists spread a message of inclusion, fairness, and justice for all—ideals that would be important themes to later student activists in the 1960s and beyond.
The students involved were Indiana natives from mostly small towns, although the leader of the group, Blas Davis, was from the Gary-Hammond-East Chicago area. Most were liberal arts undergraduates with one graduate student in history. Discussion topics and leaders changed from week to week but usually ranged around moral issues that raised questions about individual responsibility for the common good. The fact that they chose to bring McCarthy’s repressive campaign against communism to campus attention reflects the seriousness of their concern. However, as later protestors would replicate, they understood the effectiveness of a sense of humor and light heartedness by using the legend of Robin Hood symbolized by green feathers. Their approach found sympathetic audiences not just in Bloomington but on several other major campuses as well. Their ability to provoke smiles for a serious purpose was a lesson that others would take up for other causes as well.
The movement ended not because they failed to convince their peers, but because President Wells objected to the political nature of their message. For those who knew the courage that Wells displayed in protecting academic freedom in his defense of Prof. Alfred Kinsey and his research in human sexual behavior, the president’s denial of the rights of students to protest against McCarthyism appeared contradictory. For Wells, defending Kinsey was clearly a question of maintaining the core principles of the university—the freedom to pursue knowledge through research and teaching. He argued that the Green Feathers movement was based on issues that originated outside the university’s realm. Moreover, Wells was always aware of the political balance he needed to maintain with the state legislature and he was unwilling for the university to become embroiled in a partisan political fight. For future activists, the final important lesson from the Green Feathers movement was that politics should not be kept outside university walls. From the Free Speech Movement at the University of California-Berkeley to civil rights protestors and anti-war activists at campuses across the country during the 1960s and beyond, students made very clear that their concerns about critical issues of their times would be heard on campus, around the country, and throughout the world.
This article originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of 200: The IU Bicentennial Magazine, a special six-issue magazine that highlights Bicentennial activities and shares untold stories from the dynamic history of Indiana University. Visit 200.iu.edu for more Bicentennial information.