How many times must white supremacy be confronted? Every time.
Less than 10 days ago, 10 innocent people were slaughtered by a teenage white supremacist at a Buffalo grocery store. Almost 30 years ago, white supremacists killed 168 people in Oklahoma City. Nearly 40 years ago, Alan Berg was assassinated by white supremacists in Denver.
One century ago, in Colorado, the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan gained sudden, shocking statewide political power. With secretive klan support, Democrat Ben Stapleton won the 1923 Denver mayoral election, and then, with overt klan backing, Stapleton easily survived a 1924 recall election.
Republican Denver Chief District Court Judge Clarence Morley was a klan favorite, propelling him to be elected Colorado’s 24th governor in 1924. Gov. Morley and his klan cronies told the University of Colorado Boulder its funding would be withheld until Catholic and Jewish professors were purged. Fortunately, there was resistance.
George Norlin, son of Swedish immigrants, had been hired at CU Boulder in 1899 to teach Greek language and literature. In 1917, when CU President Livingston Farrand went overseas for World War I, Norlin was appointed acting president. CU regents made Norlin’s hire permanent in 1919, and CU’s fifth president stayed till 1939.
CU President George Norlin disdained racism and totalitarianism. When Morley and his klan made their demands, Norlin told them to pound sand. As the Colorado statehouse cut off CU’s funding, money was raised other ways. CU survived with its moral values intact. State funding was restored when the Colorado klan collapsed.
During the 1930s, Norlin visited Germany several times as Nazis seized power. As a guest lecturer at Berlin University, Norlin witnessed the rise of Hitler and Nazi conspiracy theories involving Jews and non-Aryans.
Returning to Colorado, Norlin relentlessly railed against Hitlerism, preparing lectures, articles and books on the subject. In Fascism and Citizenship, Norlin analyzed nationalism run amuck in Nazi Germany.
In Hitlerism: Why and Whither, Norlin warned against cultish totalitarianism. His essay collection, Things in the Saddle, advocated militant faith in American democracy as our first line of defense against the advancing madness of the Nazi revolution.
Early on, Norlin wisely hired Charles Klauder. The renowned campus architect designed and conceived CU Boulder’s distinctive Mediterranean-style buildings, with their iconic red-orange roof tile rooftops.
Norlin Library is a gorgeous example of Klauder’s architecture on CU’s campus. Completed in 1940, and posthumously named after Norlin in 1944, there are two Norlin-selected inscribed quotations on the library’s west side. Way up high is “Who knows only his own generation remains always a child.” Inscribed well below, and just above the entrance, is “Enter here the timeless fellowship of the human spirit.”
CU regents recently had their fellowship strained during CU President Mark Kennedy’s short-lived, turbulent tenure. A former Republican congressman from Minnesota, Kennedy succeeded Colorado Republican stalwarts Bruce Benson and before him, Hank Brown.
When it became apparent in 2021 that Kennedy would depart, CU regents made former Democratic state Rep. Todd Saliman interim president. Four weeks ago, it became official as Saliman was unanimously selected CU’s 24th president.
Saliman, a Littleton native, considers the CU presidency his dream job, having grown up a Buff fan, and then earning his CU-Boulder political science degree. Saliman told me he’s humbled by the courage and legacy of Norlin. Saliman wishes Norlin’s admonitions about Nazis were heeded, but “the world didn’t quite listen, and we had some very dark times.”
Ace NBC journalist Tom Costello, also a CU graduate from Arapahoe County, was 2022’s superb CU Boulder Spring commencement speaker. Costello preached moderation and restraint, telling graduates he is “more drawn to people who speak in commas and question marks and caveats than screaming in exclamation points. Anybody can scream.”
Costello continued, “Enough of the online rants, of the profanity, of body-shaming, racism, antisemitism, enough of up versus down, right versus left.” He further cautioned, “Think before you tweet. And then, just don’t tweet.”
When asked about CU’s 24th president, Costello offered praise, texting me that Saliman “strikes me as a very thoughtful person who is not prone to rash decisions, screaming matches or loud outbursts. He’s thoughtful and deliberate, and I think that has served him well through his career. It will surely be an advantage as he navigates the state politics of running the flagship university.”
Ever since 1935, CU Boulder commencements have included the Norlin Charge, with its most memorable line being, “Wherever you go, the university goes with you. Wherever you are at work, there is the university at work.”
When Saliman speaks about CU’s fifth president, he expresses admiration for Norlin’s courageous opposition to white supremacy, telling me, “When you look at what he did, and the stands that he took, that’s something to measure all of us by, not just in higher education.”
Tumultuous times can make the man. If those times are now, Todd Saliman knows he has a century-old template provided by George Norlin. CU’s most beloved and admired president confronted white supremacy every time.
Craig Silverman is a former Denver chief deputy DA who also has worked in the media for decades. Craig is columnist at large for The Colorado Sun. He practices law at the Denver law firm of Springer & Steinberg, P.C. and is host of The Craig Silverman Show podcast.
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