The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress called The Town I Live In.
This morning, I had my classes practice close reading of a text, by examining the Alma Mater song of their school, Fullerton College. I gave them a little historical context, explaining that the song was written in 1922, and that the Superintendent of the College at the time, Louis Plummer (which Plummer Auditorium is named after) was a prominent member of the Ku Klux Klan. This fact is documented in Christopher Cocoltchos' 1979 UCLA doctoral dissertation "The Invisible Government and the Viable Community: The Ku Klux Klan in Orange County, California, During the 1920's." I took some of my student’s observations, blended them with my own, and what follows is our close reading of Fullerton College’s Alma Mater Song:
All hail to Alma Mater,
They glories cannot die
So long as loyal hearts are true,
So long as heroes vie
For honors in the field and hall,
Thy name shall ever be
The challenge and the trumpet call
That leads to victory.
The language here is of medieval heroism and god-worship (Alma Mater means “nourishing mother” and was used in ancient Rome as a title for various mother goddesses, especially Ceres or Cybele, and in Christianity for the Virgin Mary.) The school’s success is equated with battle “that leads to victory.” But what kind of battles does a school really fight? Isn’t it just a place of learning? Maybe sports events are like “battles” but winning a football game seems a pretty trivial and hollow “victory” given the fact that a school’s primary function is education. Maybe the “battle” is more ideological, as we shall see below.
How can thy children well forget
The golden and the blue?
They’re mirrored in the bright sunshine
And skies of azure hue.
God writes thy colors everywhere
In shadow and in flame
Then hail our Alma Mater
All hail thy glorious name.
Here we begin to see the racist implications of the song. The “children” or students are ordered to remember “the golden and the blue” which refer to the school’s colors. However, given the large KKK population in Fullerton at the time the song was written, “golden and blue” could also refer to the preferred racial features of blonde hair and blue eyes. These features are said to be written by God everywhere, in the sky and sun. The sixth line more clearly relates to Klan activity. God’s colors are written “in shadow and in flame,” which are symbolic of purity, something the KKK tried to illustrate by burning crosses.
O Fullerton, dear Fullerton,
The golden and the blue,
The colors of the conquerors,
Thy stalwart sons and true
Will bear with eager hearts and hands,
While young ambition’s flame
Stirs memory’s altar fire and we
Recall thy much-loved name.
The Aryan features of gold and blue are here directly related to people, not school colors. In this case, gold and blue represent the features of the European “conquerors” who “purified” the land of the ungodly natives and other undesirables. It is these conquerors (Spanish mercenaries) who are praised in the song. This battle for racial superiority seems to be the battle alluded to earlier in the song. This interpretation is supported by the fact that part of the curriculum at the time was “Americanization” courses. In this stanza, we also get another reference to fire, “memory’s altar fire” and “young ambition’s flame.” Could it be that the first Fullerton College Newspaper, The Weekly Torch, referred to Klansmen’s torches? It is possible.
It turns out that Fullerton College's student magazine is still called "Torch"