One freedom bound within the other

Today on this campus, there is going to be a celebration of a great man. In the commons, there is an hour-glass-shaped statue honoring this man. Although some students have criticized this statue, their criticisms are invalid. The statue symbolizes a wonderful message.

The top half, a cone with mixed stones of black and white, faces upward to receive the sunshine and rain. The cone symbolizes the different colored people of the human race, together facing up to the sky to receive the love and wisdom of God. The rain/wisdom runs down through the openings of the cone, to nurture the plants on the inverted cone below. These plants symbolize the children of the human race: They receive the message of God’s love and wisdom from their black and white parents and grow toward the sky, getting ever stronger; reaching ever higher. This was the dream of the man being honored today. A peaceful man who used non-violent struggle to fight for the cause of freedom for all people.

He fought with words, not fists. He used his mouth and his pen to shame a nation. He used the moral force of his righteous argument to make the majority of white people in this country do what they knew in their hearts was right. With words, he forced an end to the system of segregation that had kept a large group of Americans from exercising their rights as outlined in Constitution, specifically in the Bill of Rights.

The Bill of Rights is the compact between the government and the people. It was forced on the early post-colonial government by representatives of the people who wanted recognition of some basic human rights: “Give us a Bill of Rights or there will be no American government.”

And what was the first right on the list? What is the First Amendment? It is the right of self-expression. It is the right to speak, write, associate and worship as we as individuals see fit.

Some of the Founding Fathers recognized the power of the written and spoken word and held this power sacred. They had used this word-power to fight for their freedoms in their appeal to the consciences of their fellow Englishmen. From Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence to Paine’s Common Sense, the power of the pen was used in the fight for American freedom. Years later, white abolitionists (such as William Lloyd Garrison in his newspaper, The Liberator) would wield the the pen to fight the evil of slavery.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used the power of free expression when he gave his “I Have a Dream Speech” during the March on Washington 30 years ago this summer. It was this right he exercised in his “Letter From Birmingham City Jail.” By exercising this right, King liberated his people, just as his namesake did five centuries earlier. But what would Martin say today? What would he think of the current state of relations between black and white?

I think he would weep bitter tears. He would weep because the hatred of some white people has not been overcome. But he would also weep because of the hatred in the hearts of some of his own people. And he would definitely weep when some of his people support the horrible idea of combating racism through the suppression of free expression.

In the legal academic arena today, there is a group of people advancing the notion of “Critical Race Theory.” Critical Race Theory argues that the only way to achieve true “equality” for women and minorities is to suppress “racist and sexist” speech. But the problem starts with deciding what is “racist and sexist” speech. Who will decide? How shall we enforce this ban? How much liberty must we sacrifice to achieve equality? Will it work? Will race relations be better?

An excellent criticism of Critical Race Theory can be found in the September 20/27 issue of the New Republic. The magazine cover asks: “Is the First Amendment Racist?” Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the W.E.B. Professor of Humanities at Harvard University, says “no.” He writes: “To suggest, as the critical race theorists do, that equality must precede liberty is simply to jettison the latter without obtaining the former.” Or as Ben Franklin once put it: “Those who sacrifice liberty for equality usually end up with neither.”

Mark Twain said the only way for the white man to hold the black man down was to get down in the dirt with him. The reverse is true: if the foes of racism think they can win by suppressing speech they disagree with by leveling the blanket charge of racism they are wrong. Suppression is much more of a double-edged sword than freedom. If anti-“racist speech” laws are passed, they could end up being used against rappers such as Ice-T or Sister Souljah.

Attempting to shut up argument by calling anyone who disagrees with a person of color a racist will not further the cause of progress. It only plays into the hands of fear-mongering white racists like David Duke: “See, blacks don’t want peace. They want to take your freedom, so we better get ready to fight.”

Critical Race Theorist Charles Lawrence has his own doubts. He is quoted in Gates’ article: “I fear that by framing the debate as we have—as one in which the liberty of free speech is in conflict with the elimination of racism—we have advanced the cause of racial oppression and placed the bigot on the moral high ground.”

As Dr. King said in Washington 30 years ago: “The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers … have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone … I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American Dream.” The American Dream is a dream of liberty for all. Equality is hollow if we are all equally not free.

It’s true that racism did not die with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The tragedy of Rodney King and the events surrounding the black Secret Service agents at Denny’s are proof positive that racism still exists and must be fought.

But as a white American, I beg my fellow Americans of color not to become so frustrated by the remnants of racism that you resort to the tools of intolerance to advance your goal. That road will only lead to tragedy.

Use the power of the pen! Wield it like the sword of liberty that it truly is! Fight hate speech with love speech and logic speech and righteous speech!

For it is only through the power of speech that we will teach our children not to hate. If we shut up the openings in the top cone of the King Statue, the plants below will not reach the higher levels. Likewise, if we and our children are not free talk to each other without fear, we will never reach the mountain top from which Dr. King wanted Freedom to ring.