The following address was given at the 25th annual meeting of the Alabama Philosophical Society in 1987, by Delos B. McKown, then Professor and Head of the Philosophy Department at Auburn University. All views expressed are, of course, Dr. McKown’s own!
The First 25 Years of the Alabama Philosophical Society
Delos B. McKown
When asked to make a few remarks upon this, the 25th, regular meeting of the Alabama Philosophical Society, I neglected to ask, Why me? It is true that I am, technically, one of the founding fathers, but I really had nothing to do with it except being present on May 18, 1963 at St. Bernard College in Cullman when the real originators met for the first time to set the Society in motion. Perhaps Milton was right in saying, “They also serve who only stand and wait,” but for the life of me, I cannot imagine how this can be, beyond paying dues while standing and waiting. Moreover, in 1963 I was relatively new to philosophy having left theology only several years earlier and completely new to Alabama having begun to teach at Auburn as recently as the fall of 1962. Finally, there are others in the land of the quick who, if not more fatherly than I, are more hoary, or so I like to think, having gained the ripe wisdom that only more advanced years than mine can bring. Nevertheless, it was I who was asked, and it is I who shall respond.
Like many another organization, great and small, nobody that day in 1963 seemed to give a fig for a potentially curious posterity that might, on an occasion like this one, want to know ab ovo and in detail how it all came to pass. Indeed, for years I, one of the founding fathers, so to speak, had erroneously believed that Iredell Jenkins, then head (or chair) of philosophy at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, and John Henry Melzer, the founding head of the department of philosophy at Auburn, had between them recognized the need for such an organization and had set about to realize it. That these two worthies from Alabama’s two major state-supported campuses of the time should have elected to meet initially at a small Roman Catholic college, now defunct, did not strike me as curious, perhaps for the reprehensible reason to which I shall advert later. In addition to my being unclear about the real originators of our Society, there is nothing in the minutes of the inaugural meeting to clarify this matter, and no archivist was appointed in the beginning.
Indeed, it was not until 1978 that we became interested in our own history. At that time, Professor Wes Baldwin of the University of South Alabama entertained a motion to establish archives for the Society and noted that the library of his institution was willing to provide the requisite space. As he set to work with genuine enthusiasm, writing to some or all of the surviving members of the inaugural meeting whose whereabouts were known, it became clear that some of our founding fathers were fathers in more ways than one, even excluding the biological way.
Father S. Y. Watson of the Jesuit House of Studies at Spring Hill College in Mobile remembered meeting a certain professor of philosophy, named Richard Becka, from St. Bernard College. The time was March, 1963; the place was Atlanta; the occasion was a meeting of the Metaphysical Society. The two discussed the desirability and the feasibility of developing a philosophical society in Alabama. Professor Becka, who was a layman, had apparently already communicated similar hopes to Iredell Jenkins in Tuscaloosa and, perhaps, to John Melzer in Auburn, as well as to others. The time of these communications may have been as early as the fall of 1962. In any case, no such communication survived in the departmental files at Auburn.
The upshot of it all was that on Saturday, May 18, 1963 between fifteen and twenty of us met in Cullman to lay the basis for the Alabama Philosophical Society. Professor Jenkins promptly and appropriately nominated Richard Becka for the president, but, alas, the man whose idea it was had to decline, for he was on the verge of leaving the state. In fact, Becka’s nominator became the nominee and the first president of the Society. John Melzer became the first vice-president, being charged with developing the by-laws, and Professor Kim of the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, became the first secretary-treasurer. In retrospect, it seems clear that in the case of our Society, essence preceded existence.
Although our Society was intentionally as color-blind as is our discipline, the realities of the situation in Alabama in 1963 dictated that we should hold our first annual meeting, at least, in a place where black philosophers might feel as comfortable as possible and be subjected to as little embarrassment as possible. The president and the vice-president agreed that our “tranquility should be jarred only by the content of the papers presented” and not by the grandstanding of a certain powerful political personality in our state or by any of his many minions. Accordingly, an invitation to meet at Spring Hill College was accepted, and the first annual meeting took place on that integrated campus in Mobile on November 16, 1963 just a few short months after Governor George Wallace had stood in the schoolhouse door in Tuscaloosa, gaining national notoriety.
It would be difficult to overemphasize the contribution of Spring Hill College to our Society in its earliest days. Not only did it, like St. Bernard, provide us a safe haven for integrated meetings, it also contributed the faithful and energetic services of Fathers S. Y. Watson, H. F. Tiblier, and Garth Hallett, scholars who, from our point of view, have long since suffered their own diaspora. After 1963 the political and social climate in Alabama changed so quickly for the better that by the second annual meeting, October 17, 1964, we were able to gather peacefully in Auburn with no ominous shadows threatening to darken our doorway. Since that time we have met in all manner of institutions of higher education, colleges and universities, public and private, large and small.
While meditating on the reprehensible reason why we could not meet freely anywhere in the state where we wanted to meet in 1963, I am reminded of another force antithetical to philosophy. At the 1964 meeting, two members from Judson College, a Baptist institution, attended. One of these was R. Kirby Godsey, now the embattled president of Mercer University in Georgia. One of the two (it may have been he) raised every objection he raised and answered every question he answered with the preamble, “As a churchman.” As a churchman I disagree. As a churchman I must oppose this or that. As a churchman I cannot accept thus and so. As a churchman I must uphold x rather than y. I was sorely tempted to cry out (and wonder now why I didn’t), yes, but as an autonomous man, as an individual thinker, as an unfettered philosopher, what do you say? If it was Kirby Godsey who thus aroused my ire, my heart goes out to him now as he struggles to maintain academic integrity at Mercer against powerful fundamentalist and profoundly anti-philosophical forces. It may be but a matter of time before our own members from such an institution as Samford University in Birmingham must face the same kind of brainless onslaught. Perhaps a philosophical maxim of my own construal is in order: Those who lie down with dogmatists may rise up devoured. but they should not allow themselves to be devoured silently, nor should the rest of us pay no heed as though it were merely the business of others. No doubt I have digressed somewhat from the subject at hand, but the freedom to do philosophy is at issue.
In the earliest days of our little Society it was not always easy to solicit as few as a half dozen presentations for a one-day meeting. Compare that with our current program, attractively announced, and you see how far we have come. Moreover, with the development of philosophy programs at the University of South Alabama, at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, and at Auburn in Montgomery, augmenting the existing programs both public and private, we are growing to the point of reaching a critical mass, of being able to make a difference in education as well as enriching each other’s thoughts and provoking each other’s critiques. In the past few years we have also been aided by the episodic appearance at our meetings of distinguished philosophers from outside our state as on this occasion. If as much accordingly is achieved during the next 25 years as has been achieved during the first 25 years of our Society’s existence, my successor at reflecting on our first 50 years will have an even happier tale to tell than I have had. In conclusion, thanks very much for letting the least of the founding fathers make these few remarks.