Modern tribute to Sage of Emporia
Highly acclaimed filmmaker and KU professor Kevin Willmott discusses making William Allen White documentary
Fall 2018 Edition
Kevin Willmott grew up in Junction City, Kansas. And like any kid who grew up in Kansas, he was told all about William Allen White through elementary school.
Willmott always knew White was an important man in Kansas’ history. He just didn’t know exactly why. In Willmott’s new film, “William Allen White: What’s the Matter with Kansas,” he was able to learn all about the man who is so closely related with where he was raised. The film is edited and co-written by Mark von Schlemmer and co-produced by Scott Richardson.
Kansas and White share a lot of history together, and the film pieces it together. In its 80-minute run time, the film focuses on White’s activism from his place as publisher of the Emporia Gazette, becoming a massive influencer from his desk in Kansas.
The film premiered in the midst of the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications’ week of celebrating White’s posthumous 150th birthyear.
After the premiere of the documentary, Willmott discussed the creation of the film, how White’s legacy can be felt today, and the future screenings for the film.
Q: Why did you decide to make “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” the name of the film?
A: We decided on the title because that’s the thing he’s most known for, the great essay, “What’s the Matter with Kansas.” And it also is symbolic of a lot of issues that are currently going on. “What’s the Matter with Kansas” was his response to populism of the time, to left-wing populism at the time, and currently we have a lot of right-wing populism going on. So, it was just an important theme of his life and what was defining for him.
Q: How else do his ideas relate to now because that seemed like a theme that came up a lot in the film?
A: I think there are several things. One thing is that there’s currently a rise in hate groups and racial division, the alt-right and the Klan and neo-Nazis. Hate crimes are at a high. So, the fact that White took on specifically the Klan in Kansas — they were using a lot of the populist ideas to gain power and gain members really. He took that on because both major parties had gone along with the Klan. A lot of them were members of the Klan. They took their support and moved forward with it.
White really saw that as a huge threat to democracy. When he ran as a third party, which was a really big thing for him, that was a really difficult decision because he was very much a Republican, so when he decided to take that on as a third-party candidate to take on the Klan, I think that has a lot to do with today and what’s currently going on.
The other thing that we used in the film was his taking on of demagogues and specifically Dr. John Brinkley. One of White’s really big issues was an educated electorate, an educated voting body. He was always concerned, especially during the Depression — when people are having hard times and feeling forgotten to some degree — that’s really great fodder for demagogues and for extremists to come in and take those people and manipulate them and use them.
I think the same thing is going on now. With Doc Brinkley, he was against evolution and he had a lot of anti-Semitic positions, but he was also a big radio celebrity, and at that time radio would have been the equivalent of television. He was one of the first radio shows to have live music on. He was huge. So he used his celebrity to gain political power, then used those populist things that can often separate us and those racial divisions, he used those things to gain power. And White saw that as a threat to democracy as well.
I just didn’t know the details of his life until we really got into it. One of the things that really kind of struck me was how relevant and how current and how almost really prophetic he was in kind of taking on the issues he did.
Q: I definitely thought that kept showing up in the film. And I know this may be difficult from a film perspective, but studying him, what kind of standard do you think he set for journalism or even as an editorial writer?
A: Well, that’s the thing. White was right there in the middle of defining the values of journalism and the values of free speech and the First Amendment. They were really kind of showing us what the First Amendment meant and what free speech actually meant. Like we mentioned in the film, after World War I, President Wilson punished a lot of anti-war protesters.
He really learned from that, those protesters, that that was really an anti-democratic thing that Wilson was doing. I think that, along with yellow journalism, and all of those things that were happening at the time, they made White understand and fight for the standards of journalism that we now try to hold true to.
In the film, it’s laid out that there’s just give-me-the-story journalism, there’s editorial and opinion journalism, and there’s analysis journalism, and all three of them have very clear separation.
And White was one of the people who kind of helped to create that. The fact that those lines are being blurred now is another reason why White’s values, concerning values, those are so important to hold onto.
Q: In what ways do you think White personified Kansas? I know your identity with Kansas is very strong, so did you sense how important Kansas was to him?
A: I grew up in Kansas, and as a kid they told us about William Allen White, but they didn’t really tell us why he was important. They just told us he was important.
One of the things the film taught me in making it was he was important because — I grew up in a Kansas that was very much a moderate place. There were Republican governors, then Democratic governors, and you could barely tell the difference really, between the two of them. But you could always count on a steady, common-sense approach to government and in the way of life. And that’s kind of what William Allen White symbolized in a lot of ways. I think that was the Kansas that he helped create. By ridding the Klan as a major force in Kansas, he made the state a much more moderate place. It didn’t become Mississippi and Georgia and Alabama, which it easily could have become. By doing that, he helped to give us as a state a different identity.
Those values and those kind of battles, those kind of fights — we had Bob Dole and Nancy Landon Kassebaum, and we had President [Dwight D. Eisenhower], and all of them — especially compared to now — they were all Republicans, but they were all moderate figures. That’s something that we don’t have anymore, and that kind of extreme assault on the state is really what White reminds us of — a better time, and that I would argue, we are losing right now.
Q: How do you think he showed that ideas, if they’re displayed for people in the right ways, can make legitimate change?
A: It was a combination of two things. It was him speaking out in editorials, but when he found it necessary, he took a public stand, and he worked to fight the destruction of the Klan in Kansas. That’s the thing you have to do in democracy. That’s something you have to become engaged in, and you have to care enough about the nation and the country and the values of the country to fight it off. That’s something you’re not seeing right now, especially from the left. One of the reasons they keep losing in Kansas and that things like having handguns on campus and the values that are not part of the tradition of the Kansas that I certainly grew up in. The left is going to have to fight harder.
I would argue that common sense is going to have to fight harder. And that’s the example that White gave us: when you see something that’s wrong, you have to do something about it. And he did just that.
Q: What was the most gratifying thing for you in doing this film? Or what did you take from it?
A: I really fell in love with William Allen White while working on the film. He reminded me of what I always kind of took for granted about Kansas, that common sense that we’ve been talking about, and that moderate kind of reality that no longer exists in the state. For me, he was a great reminder that, you have to fight for those values if you believe in them.
Q: What are the plans for other screenings or releases of the film?
A: We are doing a shorter version to supply to schools around the state and around the country maybe. Then we’re going to try to enter it into some of the major film festivals, and then it will probably be on PBS, at least it will be on local PBS, within a year or so.
–– Christian Hardy is a May 2018 graduate from Derby, Kansas.
ABOUT THE FILM
“William Allen White: What’s the Matter with Kansas” was funded through the William Allen White Foundation in coordination with KU Endowment and these principal funding partners:
• Dwayne and Velma Wallace Foundation
• William T. Kemper Foundation
• Kansas Newspaper Foundation
• Trusler Foundation
• Kansas Creative Arts Industry Commission
• Kansas Humanities Council
• Emporia Community Foundation