John Boardman: A Civil Rights Activist

In December 1956, John Boardman, a white PhD student in theoretical physics at Florida State University, invited three black international Florida A&M University students to an FSU International Students Club Christmas party on the FSU campus. The invitation came amidst bitter racial tensions in Tallahassee and the South. That same month, a federal judge had ruled segregated transportation unconstitutional, ending both the Montgomery bus boycott and the Tallahassee bus boycott. Further, the Florida Board of Control, the governing body of the State University System of Florida, was ensnared in the national, and unrelenting, controversy surrounding the higher education integration suit filed by prospective black law student Virgil Hawkins in 1950.

From left to right: Reverend C.K. Steele, John Boardman, and Reverend J. Raymond Henderson of California at the Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Tallahassee, 1956 or 1957.

On January 26, 1957, FSU announced that Boardman would not be allowed to re-enroll at the University because he “violated the regulation of the University which provides that meetings may not be held on the campus in which the races are mixed. This regulation is in accordance with the Board’s long time policy . . . [Boardman] stated that he had no intention of abiding by any regulation of the Board of Control regarding racial tensions.” Not only had Boardman violated this rule, but he had also been actively participating in civil rights demonstrations around the city and continued to do so despite a January 22nd Board of Control statement warning that “Participation by students in demonstrations or other activities calculated to, or having the effect of, inflaming the public, or inciting strife or violence will be considered as endangering the welfare of our universities.”

Statement from the State Board of Control discouraging student participation in civil rights demonstrations, January 22, 1957.

Statement to the press regarding the disciplinary action against Boardman, January 26, 1957.

Letter from FSU President Doak Campbell to Boardman sustaining the decision to expel Boardman from the university, February 8, 1957.

After the decision was announced, Boardman appealed to FSU President Doak Campbell, who sustained the decision of the disciplinary committee based on Boardman’s expressed refusal to follow regulations. Boardman and his supporters maintained his expulsion was reprisal for his active opposition to segregation.

Letters to FSU President Campbell during this time expressed either impassioned support for or opposition to disciplinary action against student civil rights activists. The Association of Citizens Councils of Florida urged that “All of the students at [FSU and FAMU] who have been involved in these incidents must be suspended or expelled from school and they must not be allowed to re-enter any State-supported institution of higher learning ever.” One opponent described Boardman’s expulsion as “more like that taking place in Iron Curtain countries than in free America.”

Letter from Homer T. Barrs of the Association of Citizens Councils of Florida to the Board of Control at Florida State University encouraging the board to take action against students of state-supported institutions of higher learning participating in civil rights activities in Tallahassee, page 1, January 24, 1957.

Letter from Homer T. Barrs of the Association of Citizens Councils of Florida, page 2, January 24, 1957.

 

Letter from Nathan Cohen to President Campbell protesting his decision to uphold the suspension of Boardman, January 27, 1957.

Boardman went on to earn his PhD in physics from Syracuse University in 1962 and was a long-time physics professor at Brooklyn College.

The records regarding Boardman’s expulsion from FSU are from series S1360, Florida State University President Doak S. Campbell Administrative Files, 1941-1957, Box 20, Folder 41. The documents below represent a fraction of letters available regarding Boardman’s expulsion that were sent to President Campbell. Click the images below to see the documents enlarged.

Teacher Mrs. Roy A. Patton supporting FSU President Doak Campbell’s decision to uphold the suspension of Boardman.

Letter from Dean Boggs of the Duval County Federation for Constitutional Government praising the president’s decision to expel Boardman, January 28, 1957.

Letter from “An Unhappy Student” expressing opposition to the president’s decision to expel Boardman.

Letter from “A Foreigner” warning President Campbell about “foreign students.”

Letter from the Morehouse College Students Association encouraging President Campbell to reconsider his decision to expel Boardman.

Letter from Hector Fuente, vice president of the Dade County Property Owners Association, praising President Campbell’s decision to expel Boardman.

Letter from E. Clyde Vining, attorney, commending President Campbell’s decision to expel Boardman, January 29, 1957.

Letter from Victor G. Backus, director of the news bureau at Fisk University, expressing his indignation over the president’s decision to expel Boardman, February 5, 1957.

Letter to President Campbell expressing opposition to the president’s decision to expel Boardman, page 1, January 27, 1957.

Letter to President Campbell expressing opposition to the president’s decision to expel Boardman, page 2, January 27, 1957.