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Omaha Magazine

The Man Who Didn’t Flinch

Sep 22, 2023 04:21PM ● By Kim Carpenter

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When Robert T. Meyer attempted to teach 11-year-old Raymond Parpart the Biblical story of Jacob’s Ladder in a rural, one-room school in Hampton, Nebraska, his efforts ended with his arrest. The infraction wasn’t providing religious instruction in a school; Meyer taught at Zion Lutheran Church’s elementary school, a private institution where separation of church and state would not have been an issue. Instead, Meyer’s crime was teaching about religion in German. 

The date was May 25, 1920. World War I was still a recent memory, and providing elementary school education in a foreign language, particularly German, ranked as a criminal offense. 

One year earlier, the Nebraska legislature had passed the Siman Act, which specified: “No person, individually or as a teacher, shall, in any private, denominational, parochial, or public school, teach any subject to any person in any language other than the English language.” While teaching a foreign language was permissible for high school students, it was outlawed below the 8th grade. (Ancient languages such as Greek, Hebrew, and Latin were exempt.)

Christopher Capozzola, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who teaches a class on the history of the Supreme Court and is the author of Uncle Sam Wants You: World War I and the Making of the American Citizen (2008), said, “The Siman Act only ever applied to one language and that was German. There was the fear of propaganda and that teaching German to small children would weaken their minds and loyalty to America.”

The act was part of a broader, coordinated anti-immigrant effort to prevent, or at least significantly restrict, people from speaking German, especially since Germans comprised a significant portion of the state’s immigrant population at the time. By 1910, close to 60% of Omaha’s population of more than 124,000 claimed German descent.

Nebraska’s Council of Defense, established to coordinate war efforts within the state, targeted German activities. German-American societies were discouraged from gathering, with many disbanding. German ministers were compelled to deliver sermons in English, and shopkeepers were prohibited from conducting business in their native tongue. The public burned German textbooks throughout the state; Omaha crowds gleefully participated in smashing beer steins (an event promoted by the Red Cross), and Lincoln’s mayor forbade the visiting Minneapolis Symphony from performing work by German composers. The University of Nebraska–Lincoln also took part in anti-German sentiment with the school newspaper proclaiming, “Regents Ready to Rid University of Every Suspicion of Disloyalty.” Academic loyalty tests resulted in the unjust firing of at least two professors for insufficient patriotism.

So virulent was nativist feeling regarding all things Germanic that many Germans changed their surnames. Mueller became Miller; Schmidt, Smith. Even towns couldn’t escape. Berlin was rechristened Otoe, and Germantown transformed into Garland.

It was within this context that Meyer, a 42-year-old mild-mannered father of six who wore a neatly trimmed mustache and round spectacles befitting a scholar, asked his pupil to read aloud in German. Although he couldn’t have known it at the time, his ensuing arrest for defying the Siman Act became a pivotal moment in American jurisprudence and served as precedent for determining the extent of civil liberties for the next century.

Meyer could have resolved the issue quickly. Parents at the school paid his bail, and members of the church’s congregation offered to pay the $25 fine. 

The teacher refused out of principle. 

Native Nebraskan Ross Benes, whose 2021 book Rural Rebellion: How Nebraska Became a Republican Stronghold, which chronicled the state’s evolving political landscape, came across Meyer’s story while conducting research. “He easily could have backed down to the authorities,” Benes said. “It would have been easy to abide by the rules.”

Instead, Meyer appealed his arrest through his lawyer, Arthur Mullen, an Irish Catholic Democrat, whom Capozzola described as “the Clarence Darrow of Nebraska who was happy to take on lost causes. He really wanted to try this case.”

Indeed, Mullen was delighted to fight lawmakers he labeled “bigots” and a law he considered a form of “Chauvinistic hysteria,” so he eagerly brought Meyer’s case before the Nebraska State Supreme Court, arguing that it violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause.

In his 1940 autobiography, Western Democrat (1940), Mullen didn’t mince words. He recounted how, during Meyer’s instruction, “to little blue-eyed boys and flaxen-haired girls…a shadow fell across the sunlight of the doorway. There stood the county attorney.”

The teacher, Mullen continued, was not to be dissuaded:

“I had my choice,” [Meyer] told me afterward in that quiet voice which was more impressive than any shouting. “I knew that, if I changed into the English language, he would say nothing. If I went on in German, he would come in, and arrest me. I told myself that I must not flinch. And I did not flinch. I went on in German.”

“Why?” Mullen asked.

He widened his gaze a little. “It was my duty,” he said simply. “I am not a pastor in my church. I am a teacher, but I have the same duty to uphold my religion. Teaching the children the religion of their fathers in the language of their fathers is part of that religion.”

In February 1922, the Court ruled against Meyer’s appeal and upheld the constitutionality of the Siman Act, citing its necessity for maintaining public order and assimilating immigrants into American society.

Mullen and Meyer remained undeterred and appealed the decision to the US Supreme Court, which overturned the Nebraska court’s ruling in June 1923. Conservative judge James McReynolds authored the majority opinion regarding the Fourteenth Amendment: 

“Without doubt, it denotes not merely freedom from bodily restraint but also the right of the individual to contract, to engage in any of the common occupations of life, to acquire useful knowledge, to marry, establish a home and bring up children, to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience, and generally to  enjoy those privileges long recognized at common law as essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.”

This phrasing was significant. It served as a central factor in several more famous US Supreme Court cases, such as 1967’s Loving v. Virginia, which ruled that laws banning interracial marriage were unconstitutional. The Court also cited it in 2003’s Lawrence v. Texas, which ruled that states could not criminalize homosexual conduct, and 2015’s Obergefell v. Hodges, which required states to license and recognize same-sex marriage. 

For all that influence, the general public is often unfamiliar with the soft-spoken Nebraska school teacher’s role in shaping American civil liberties.

“I read a lot about Nebraskan history when I researched the book, and this stood out to me as significant legal history I was not familiar with,” Benes said. “I had lived my whole life in Nebraska and went to UNL, and it took me by surprise. Meyer was a Nebraskan who helped expand freedoms throughout the US. What he went through allowed millions of Americans to learn about other cultures and languages they otherwise would not have had access to.” 

Capozzola agrees.

“Meyer v. Nebraska is on the list of the most important cases you’ve never heard of,” he said. “It doesn’t fit easily within a box of conservative or liberal. It cuts across party lines. It applies to worship, and it’s foundational to bilingual education. The court has acknowledged it in the right to marriage equality—and it’s a great window into life in Nebraska in the early 20th century.” 

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This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

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