When I was living in New York, we heard that the Klan was coming to march in Manhattan. This, predictably, caused an outrage in the city with folks screaming about why the stupid yuck-yucks shouldn't be allowed to march there. They oughta stay home in New Jersey, or wherever they were schlepping in from. Tell them they weren't welcome.
Don't get me wrong: I'm no fan of the bigots-in-bedsheets, the domestic terrorists first anointed by Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest back during Reconstruction to terrorize blacks away from the voting booth. The knights of hate and murder who viciously assassinated Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner for trying to register blacks to vote in my hometown. The cowards-behind-masks who burned black churches in the 1960s to scare blacks out of demanding equal rights under the law.
Yet I do believe that the Klan has the right to march on public property. To hate. To state their views. And to be drowned out by angry New Yorkers as they were that sunny day in Manhattan. Speech, after all, flows two directions, and there were only about five Klansmen and thousands of New Yorkers out to ruin their day.
It was vital to our democracy and principles of freedom that the Klan be allowed to gather at City Hall that day and be shouted down. It's no contest, no test of our principles, to stand up for speech you believe in. If you mean this freedom thing, you'll stand up for the expression that offends you most. As Voltaire, that great defender of free speech, said so eloquently, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
An adherence to that principle is why I dig civil-liberties groups like the ACLU. They will fight equally as hard against the establishment of a particular religion by government as they will for the right for Nazis to march in predominantly Jewish Skokie, Ill. That is, they stand up for American principles of individual freedom, no matter whom it offends.
The day the Klan took Manhattan, so to speak, Norm Siegel, then the head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, stood with the Klansfolk as they tried to get their voices heard above the angry roar of the crowd. There were rumors that the bigots would be in danger that day, —little known to the crowd—they were wearing bullet-proof vests. Siegel wasn't.
My friend and I had stationed ourselves at the rear of the area where they were speaking. We had heard that they were going to come out there, and we stood flirting with an old Irish cop so he would let us hang out to get an up-close glimpse of the towering hate mongers. We were giggling with him when we heard yelling.
A stampede of cops galloped toward us, yelling at our cop to "get those people out of there!" Instead, he backed us up against the wall behind him, so that we still had a good view. I strained my neck over his shoulder, watching for the white of their robes. I couldn't see them.
Suddenly, I noted a woman and a few men, probably in their late 30s, running toward us as if their asses were on fire. Their cheeks were covered with red splotches and they were wearing t-shirts and jeans—and bullet-proof vests. In their hands were crumpled-up Klan robes that somehow seemed less intimidating rhwn. They were headed toward a police van with the doors open and the cops waving them in.
Norm was sprinting alongside them, sweat breaking through his blue button-down-collar shirt from his arm pits to his waist. He was running with the Klan, putting his life where his mouth was. He means this freedom thing, I thought then.
Too often, people don't think the idea of freedom all the way through. It's been in danger way too much lately—from the government's PATRIOT Acts, to attempts to squelch dissent to the Iraqi war, to efforts to keep Michael Moore's film out of theaters in the U.S.
Of course, disrespect for freedom is not always censorship, and it's not always illegal. That is, only the government, and its agencies and officials, can violate your constitutional rights to speech and expression. The truth is, a movie theater chain can decide not to show a film, and a radio station can stop playing Dixie Chick records if they want. They're private companies; it's their prerogative (unless, of course, the government is telling them to do it).
But just because we have the right to squelch access to a form of expression doesn't mean we should. No, a media outlet doesn't have to be a forum for libel and personal insults and unfactual statements, but we should encourage open civil dialogue and fill in gaps left by other media. Each of us as individuals must use the system of free enterprise to overcome attempts to inhibit expression, much as the film-going public did last week by demanding the right to see the controversial Michael Moore documentary and judge it for themselves.
Most importantly, though, we must keep each other diligent about freedom, convince each other to pay attention. I heard Bob Moses say at the 2003 commemoration of the lives of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner that freedom is about the struggle. The struggle is freedom. When I heard Mr. Moses speak of this in his soft-spoken way, I got the concept of freedom better than ever before. The sad or exhilarating reality, depending on how you look at it, is that freedom isn't static. It likely never will be that you have truly obtained freedom and then can kick back on your laurels.
The privilege of being free, and enjoying the right to personal freedom, is about being willing to defend it whenever necessary. Clearly, as we're learning in Iraq, freedom can never be forced (and anyone trying to force it is probably sacrificing freedom to get there). Freedom must be defended, guarded, fought for, modeled—even if that means you occasionally have to sprint through downtown streets with a Klansman or two.
Living free is worth it.
- I agree. I would much rather see the Klan in public than feel persecuted and driven underground. But my reaction to them would not have been violent. No, I would have waited until right before they were in front of me, and turned my back to them, letting my silence shine.