Debate Sparks Protest
Confronting controversial issues and hosting disputed figures is an important aspect of the open forum movement. Whether hosting a debate between pro-ERA feminist Karen DeCrow and anti-ERA conservative Phyllis Schlafly, or having white supremacist and former Grand Wizard of the KKK David Duke speak amid public outrage, the Forum has remained a platform where controversial speakers can debate their ideas with the public.
Ayn Rand, novelist and founder of the objectivist movement, was a staple of the Ford Hall Forum for twenty years, beginning in 1961.
In 1979, during the second wave feminist movement, the Ford Hall Forum invited prominent conservative and Equal Rights Amendment challenger Phyllis Schlafly to speak at the Forum. Ford Hall was overrun with letters in opposition, demanding that equal time be given to a supporter of the ERA. The Forum responded by hosting a debate between Schlafly and pro-ERA feminist Karen DeCrow. Read a partial transcription of the discussion.
In 1933, the Forum invited Harvard University professor and Nazi supporter Frederick Shoenemann to speak and take questions. His lecture entitled "Why I Believe in the Hitler Government" drew a large audience as well as a group of some 5,000 protestors. The event eventually led to a riot on Beacon Hill, with protestors and police clashing outside, while the lecture continued on.
In 1991, Ford Hall hosted former Grand Wizard of the KKK and noted white supremacist, David Duke. Duke aimed to speak out against affirmative action and welfare. His attendance was widely opposed, first with letter writing campaigns and then with all-out protests the day of the lecture. His lecture was mostly drowned out by protesters in the hall, some of which were eventually removed by police in riot gear. Coming days after confederate flags were flown by students at Harvard University, Duke’s speech highlighted the racial tensions which still held strong in Boston and across the country. Ford Hall stood behind their choice of speaker, noting that Duke was only one in a long line of controversial speakers aimed at reflecting the Forum's commitment to freedom of speech. The public was split on this defense.