It was only a matter of time before the current furor over sex harassment and misconduct by prominent people added Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to the list.
And now his name has surfaced, by way of the FBI in the newly-released JFK assassination papers.
One of these documents, stamped “SECRET” is titled Martin Luther King, Jr. A Current Analysis. Itwas dated March 12, 1968, just three weeks before King was assassinated in Memphis.
This paper, or rather, one section of it, is the topic of a major article by Donovan Harrell, and published by the McClatchy newspaper chain, under the headline JFK files: FBI documents allege Martin Luther King Jr. had secret love child, orgies. It was reprinted in the Raleigh NC News & Observer, which is where I learned about it. And it’s been circulating more and more widely since. (The full text of the FBI paper is here.)
It’s a sign of the times — then and now — that these allegations, under the heading, “King’s personal conduct,” come last in the 20-page paper, and take up only about a page and a half. The sign then was that the FBI was far more concerned in what it considered King’s many ties to Communism, and to present and former U.S. Communists. Allegations about such ties take up the first third of the paper, and are scattered throughout much of the rest.
King was in fact connected to some persons with Communist associations in their past. One of his closest advisers over many years was Stanley Levison, a new York City businessman and lawyer who had once been a high-level member of the Communist Party-USA. But FBI files also state that Levison terminated his Communist associations in 1957, though that shift did not end FBI interest in, or surveillance of him.
No, the McClatchy article is interested in what’s hot now, and that is sex. And for those so inclined, it is not necessary to turn to the JFK files to find such assertions. Major biographies by top scholars include them, and Yale historian Beverly Gage, wrote in the New York Times in 2014 that “King’s extramarital sex life, [was] already an open secret within the civil rights movement’s leadership.”
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover once wrote that King was like “a tom cat with obsessive degenerate sexual urges.”
In fact, Hoover evidently became convinced from wiretaps and other surveillance, that by 1964 the FBI had accumulated enough salacious material to force King to retire in disgrace from civil rights activism, or even drive him to suicide.
A notorious “suicide letter” was drafted by one of Hoover’s close aides, and anonymously sent, along with an audiotape full of heavy breathing and the like, to King in November, 1964. As dramatized in the movie “Selma,” King’s wife opened the package.
The letter was only one unsigned page (Full text here). Its punchline was stark: “King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. . . . You are done. There is but one way out for you. . . .”
King decided to ignore the tape and the letter, as did the news reporters the FBI tried to interest in the tape. It appears that King continued with his extramarital activities until his death in April 1968.
All this is lurid enough; but the question of the moment today is one only implicit in the resurfaced FBI paper: was King a sexual harasser, or even a predator, who forced himself upon any of the many women he allegedly had sex with?
And a related question is, doesn’tthis behavior pattern call into question, or even discredit, his august moral standing? Does King deserve to be, say, enshrined in a statue on the tidal basin in the heart of Washington DC?
I can’t answer the first question, but can offer some perspective as a junior staffer for King’s group in 1964 and 1965. And I have some thoughts about the second.
First of all, though I have no direct evidence about King himself, I can say that sexual harassment of female employees and associates was rife in King’s group, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, even at high levels. My late wife Tish experienced it often when she worked in the SCLC office in Selma, Alabama.
Other women staff told me of incidents. And being a young male in 1965, I talked with other males in the group, and things were said that corroborated the other reports, and would not pass muster today.
Indeed, the atmosphere of the movement was sexually charged. This was due to many factors, no doubt, but one that ought not to be dismissed is the impact of charisma. Dr. King was a very charismatic figure; several of his top staff members also had quite magnetic personalities, based on their eloquence, personal bravery in the face of racist violence, and reflected glory by being close to Dr. King.
Such charisma is a fact. It occurs in many professions, and beyond a certain point has little to do with physical appearance. Henry Kissinger proves the rule, and offered one of its most apt summaries: “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”
I had one real and unsettling experience of this, at the height of the Selma, Alabama voting rights campaign led by Dr. King. It is described in my memoir, Eating Dr. King’s Dinner.
I was very busy in the two hectic weeks after the famous “Bloody Sunday” attack by state troopers and deputies on marchers attempting a peaceful walk from Selma to the Alabama state capitol in Montgomery. People from all over the country, shocked by the violence, came pouring into Selma. Coping with this influx was a nonstop challenge. And the role that fell to me for several days was that of chauffeur.
SCLC rented several cars, and I managed to commandeer one. I happily spent several days ferrying various notables, most of whom I had never heard of, back and forth to the airport.
The car brought more than a hint of luxury to my $25 per week standard of living: it was warm, new, and had a good radio. It also served as a useful stage: for a series of rapt, terrified passengers, I turned the journey down Highway 80 into an instant history tour,starting with the full-size John Birch Society billboard near the airport, which demanded that we Get the US OUT of the UN, and do it now. Then, a few miles west:
“Yes, this is Lowndes County, with a population thatis eighty per cent black, but where no blacks are registered; none. They say the last black man who tried to register there was shot dead on the courthouse steps; that’s what they say.
“And there–see that ramshackle old building? It’s a real, functioning one-room schoolhouse (well, three rooms actually), with holes in the floor and walls that let in the winter wind; that’s right, it’s all the public education available for Negroes in the county.”
Twenty or so white-knuckled miles later:
“And don’t miss that bank billboard there, the one that welcomes us to Selma as ‘the city with 100 per cent human interest.’ Look to the other side, and there’s another for the White Citizens Council (a pause for gasps); and they’re both located just about at the spot where the troopers attacked the march–they hid their horses behind that building over there.”
By then, eyes were wide, necks craned.
Once across the bridge, we turned right at the courthouse, where I casually mentioned my own three arrests and a close encounter with the sheriff’s possemen’s wielding electric cattle prods, cruised cautiously past City Hall, describing the two jails it housed, and then jogged again to get to Sylvan Street and Brown Chapel AME church, the movement headquarters.
There I dropped off my passengers, who by now were usually half-dazed with awe at the apocalyptic spectacle they were joining.
One trip turned out differently, though. At the Montgomery airport, looking for the Selma contingent, I saw a stunning blonde, dressed in demure but elegant black, coming toward me. She flashed a winsome smile, said something about coming from Michigan, and asked for a ride to the church.
With pleasure, ma’am, I thought, and welcome to the Southland.
She insisted on sitting up front with me, and listened to my tourist spiel with a semblance of interest. I had some trouble getting through it, though, because she was so good to look at; the black suit, despite its modest cut, only set off her full figure. Then as we approached the bridge, she interrupted to ask if I knew where Dr. King was.
I shrugged. Maybe at the church, maybe somewhere else, I wasn’t sure.
But she persisted. She wanted to see Dr. King. She neededto see him. That, she said, was why she came.
Well, let me think; it was midday, the mass meetings were probably in a lull, and Dr. King could be conferring with staff in the back of the church, or possibly resting somewhere – I knew of an apartment in the projects nearby where he often slipped away for some quiet. But he might be someplace else entirely, coming back later–
But where is he now? She insisted. I need to see him.
And all at once my guard was up. Who was this woman? What was she after? She did not seem acquainted with Dr. King or the movement. But the very elegance of her appearance, I realized, exuded an unspoken awareness of Dr. King’s fondness for female pulchritude. And her sense of mission reinforced my sudden suspicion. She seemed to presume he would want to talk with her, be with her; and she might well have been right.
But for what purpose? By now I was familiar with the steady stream of death threats that Dr. King received. Most were no more than racist invective; but some were serious. I knew at least one such firsthand:
A few weeks earlier, top Justice Department officials had called and begged Dr. King to stop a planned night march, because they said there was a KKK assassination squad ready to attack it, and him, in the dark, and they wouldn’t be able to stop it.
Dr. King at first said no, we would march despite the threats. But he was finally persuaded to back off the plan by the pleas of top aides, who stressed the danger to others in the march.
I was there that night, with other staffers, and heard the calls, and the debate, listening and scared out of my wits. I’d also seen postcards declaring murderous intentions toward King.. Other threats, less dramatic, kept coming.
And for a serious, skillful assassination plan, there would be more than one way to get close to him, to bait a fatal trap. A beautiful woman could be just the thing.
As the memories of the planned night march came back, my responses to my passenger’s queries became suddenly vague; the tour guide banter subsided into bumpkin monosyllables.
I managed to creep through the crowd milling along and into the street, quite close to Brown Chapel, pulled up, and pointed toward the back of the church.
“The offices are there.” I strongly doubted Dr. King was inside; but if he was, he’d surely be surrounded by staff, with dozens of reporters and photographers close by.
She thanked me, snatched up her small travel bag, and was gone, pushing her way into the crowd swirling around outside the building.
That was that; I never saw or heard of her again, and whatever happened, Dr. King survived for three more years.
But I was thoroughly rattled. Even if she was no more than a celebrity stalker, the trip showed how magnetic charisma could be. (Less than two years later, I was part of a similarly convincing demonstration, at Shea Stadium in New York. There I watched nearly 50,000 girls and women shrieking their lungs out for two hours at four complete strangers trying to play music in center field. I saw the Beatles with them that night; and though I couldn’t hear a note the band played, the experience was unforgettable.)
But now let’s return to the other question: does the sexual adventurism of Dr. King and some of his associates along with the atmosphere of sexual harassment this fostered undermine his legacy, and moral stature?
To get at this, I’ll return to Eating Dr. King’s Dinner and note another encounter from 1965 It was in September, several months after the successful march to Montgomery, and passage of the Voting Rights Act, which (for some decades at least), changed the politics of the south, and the U.S.
I was invited to an SCLC staff retreat at the Penn Center on the South Carolina coast. The Penn Center is the successor of a school founded and long operated by Quakers from the North, to educate newly freed slaves after the Civil War. It’s now a cultural center and national monument for the rich Gullah culture of the area; it also hosts small conferences. Dr. King held many retreats there, during the years when official segregation made it difficult to find locations for integrated meetings.
At the 1965 retreat, there were momentous issues on the table: should Dr. King take the movement north, specifically to Chicago? (The answer was yes, in an ill-fated campaign the next year.)
And should Dr. King come out strongly against the rapidly escalating Vietnam War — and thereby defy many powerful people who were warning him to stay away from “foreign policy.” (That answer was yes, too, but it took longer, until early 1967, for Dr. King to take a bold antiwar stance.)
But these big issues of the day are not what is before us now. Instead, what comes to mind is an entirely informal encounter there, between the plenary sessions.
In fact, it happened while we were all standing in line for a meal. I heard Dr. King talking earnestly ahead of me, and tuned in, as by degrees, did most of the rest.
King was talking with James Bevel, his Direct Action Director, and one of the most insightful tactical thinkers, and electrifying speakers, in Dr. King’s inner circle. They were talking, debating really, about sex and marriage.
How the topic came up, I don’t know, but there they were. Bevel, in his tenor staccato, was making the case for what were known euphemistically as “open relationships,” marriages in which the partners were explicitly allowed to seek sexual pleasure with others.
To this Dr. King sounded a baritone bass note of dissent. He had no faith in any such couplings, he said; the right way was the traditional one: monogamy and fidelity.
This was a friendly argument, like a college bull session; voices were not raised, no personal charges were hurled, and Dr. King did not attempt to pull rank. But it was still evident that their positions were deeply felt, and the colloquy was riveting to the listeners.
Surely all of us present knew, by regular hearsay if not personal observation, that neither of these men was exactly a model of monogamy. I would thus have expected Dr. King to go along with Bevel, at least to some extent, if only to provide himself with moral cover for what we all assumed was his habitual practice.
But no. Bevel argued skillfully: love was expansive; possessiveness outmoded, and jealousy a bad habit. But Dr. King refused to budge: one man, one woman, forsaking all others–given the fallen state of human nature, that’s the way it had to be. It was also what the Bible said.
Looking back, this exchange, finally interrupted by the arrival of the food, revealed a great deal. In Bevel there was the spirit of the times, pushing the limits and opening things up, trying to be ethically and situationally inclusive, and to see good in what he, and many others of the time, were doing.
I don’t recall if he did, but he could have parried Dr. King’s biblical references with one of his own, the Apostle Paul from First Corinthians, proclaiming that “All things are lawful for me,” a verse which conventional exegetes are anxious to diminish or ignore.
Dr. King, on the other hand, was tipping his hand as the more orthodox Christian: the standard is there, was his argument. He didn’t say, but the implication was obvious, that his and our failures to live up to it didn’t mean we should redraw the lines, but rather admit that we are sinners. We don’t need new morals, was his point; we need the old remedies: forgiveness and grace.
Put into a gloss on their own, reputedly similar behavior, Bevel was insisting, “I’m not doing anything wrong,” while Dr. King was admitting, “I am.”
At the time, standing transfixed in that dinner line, I was mostly on Bevel’s side, or at least I thought I was. A part of me still is, too, a bit; but time and my own misadventures have lately edged me more in Dr. King’s corner.
Are all things really lawful to me? Maybe more than some people think should be; but even so, there are limits. And do I need grace and forgiveness?
Do I need to breathe?
Suppose for a moment that the bullet at the Lorraine Motel had missed Dr. King thatevening in April, 1968. Suppose he had continued with the campaign there in support of sanitation workers — and then gone on to lead his planned Poor Peoples Campaign in Washington that summer.
Besides these boiling issues (along with the continuing Vietnam War), there were others waiting to ambush him, and one of these was sex.
The male chauvinism embedded in much of his and others’ behavior was corrosive to the cohesion of the movement’s key cadre: marriages were broken up; colleagues parted ways; many rank and file supporters backed away. These patterns were not “victimless.”
Further, it had practical effects: it split the movement between those who were “in the know” about the private recreations of King and others, and the many who did not, or only suspected. That fed an elitism which ultimately generated deep and persisting distrust of exalted “leaders” among many. It also exposed King to continuing, unnecessary risks: of blackmail, exposure in the press, or retaliation from a cuckolded spouse.
Who better to signal some of this internal cost than the movement’s most sophisticated and sardonic chanteuse, Nina Simone, in her 1964 recording of “Go Limp”:
“Oh Daughter, dear Daughter Take warning from me And don’t you go marching With the N-A-A-C-P. For they’ll rock you and roll you And shove you into bed. And if they steal your nuclear secret You’ll wish you were dead. . . .”
Four years later, back to Dr. King: how much longer would his wife Coretta have put up with his frequent philandering? By then the “second wave” feminist movement was taking off, and challenges to male dominance and sexual consumerism were rising, inside the movement as well as outside. King & SCLC were thoroughly male chauvinist; a reckoning was likely.
This is speculation. But in another case, there is, sadly, more: James Bevel was notorious in the movement for his many sexual exploits. By 2005 he had been married four times and had fathered sixteen children by these and other women.
I thought highly of Bevel in my days in the Selma movement. But over time his behavior and political alliances came to seem bizarre and we lost touch.The last time I talked with him was in the 1990s, and he then expressed regret for his behavior in the 1960s, and said he had changed his ways. He wanted me to help him write an autobiography. I demurred; keeping a distance felt safer.
Then in May, 2007, Bevel was arrested and charged with committing incest with one of his daughters in the 1990s. The alleged incident happened in Virginia, which has no statute of limitations on such charges. Three other daughters later said Bevel had had sex with them too.
He was tried and convicted in April 2008, and the testimony included statements of his that resembled the outlook I heard him express that day at the Penn Center, extended across generations. He was sentenced to 15 years, but released in November of that year, after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and died the following month.
In midsummer, while Bevel was awaiting sentencing, his wife emailed me, to ask that I write to the judge, requesting a reduced sentence.
I agonized about this. There was no defending or mitigating what he had done to his children. I didn’t want anything to do with it. Yet it was also true that Bevel had made signal contributions to the civil rights movement: the whole Selma-Montgomery march, which became the key to the Voting Rights Act,was his idea. This and his other best work had benefitted millions.
What do you do about people who are a mix of good and evil?
Ultimately my resolution was this: I wrote to the judge, but offered no brief for the actions he had been convicted of. Instead I told him of the substantial positive, even historic work I felt Bevel had once done. And I asked the judge to weigh this in a spirit of mercy. I doubt it made any difference, but it felt truthful, if difficult.
I’ve had more time to consider Dr. King. And I find his legacy still endures;Dr. King as a sinner makes sense.And no children were involved, so far as I know. The impact of his charisma, as shown by the episode of the blonde in black in my rental car, was pervasive.
For me his flaws, his sins were dwarfed by his larger witness, and the sacrificial courage he showed facing death threats daily — including the “suicide letter” from the head office of the FBI — until one of them succeeded.
That witness stands, with no need to disguise or dismiss the shortcomings. Is it noteworthy that almost fifty years after his death, there have been to my knowledge, no “women coming forward” in print or other media, to take down his reputation, as, say, Bill Cosby’s or Harvey Weinstein’s has been? Despite the personal and family costs, could there be more to this than meets the judgmental eye?
We’re probably not going to hear much about that in news articles based on the FBI papers released about the JFK assassination. It may be true, I believe it was important; but it isn’t sexy. Or for that matter, even Communist.
Many friends of mine are upset about a recent anti-LGBT screed called the Nashville Declaration. I don’t begrudge their anger; yet I wish they would take a break from the issuance of indignant counter-screeds to ponder some of the upside resources offered by this piece.
Politico noted Tuesday the death from cancer of Michael Cromartie, a longtime staffer at the very right-wing but carefully-high-toned Ethics & Public Policy Center (EPPC) in DC.
I knew Cromartie a bit in the ’80s. He & EPPC even tried to recruit me for their efforts to discredit anti-Vietnam protests (in anticipation of defending new US wars).
Perhaps I seemed a good prospect: I could write; I’d been an active antiwar protester, but had also publicly criticized some of the extremists & crazies in the movement; and (not least, for EPPC’s laserlike focus on the Ivies & their ilk) I had attended Harvard Divinity School.
Rev. Dr. William Barber to transition from North Carolina NAACP to join the leadership of the “New Poor People’s Campaign” [Update below.]
The Kairos Center [an organization created by Union Theological Seminary inNew York City] is excited to announce that the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II will be transitioning out of his role as the president of the North Carolina Conference of the NAACP in June, in order to join the growing leadership of the New Poor People’s Campaign. [The New PPC is a project of the Kairos Center.] The North Carolina NAACP announced the news in a press release this morning . . .
“Rev. Barber will focus attention on the new Poor People’s Campaign co-led by the Kairos Center at Union Theological Seminary, where Rev. Barber is a distinguished professor of public theology. Throughout 2017 and early 2018 he will lead trainings and organize alongside moral leaders, including poor black, brown and white communities.
The forthcoming report, ‘The Souls of Poor Folk,’ co-developed by the Rev. Dr. James Forbes, Rev. Dr. Barber, and noted economists, historians and public policy experts, will explore why issues of poverty have changed or remained the same since the Poor People’s Campaign of 1967/68.
In early 2018, moral activists will lead 40 days of simultaneous direct action and civil disobedience in state capitols, Washington D.C. and the U.S. Congress.
‘Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King called for a radical ‘revolution of values’ inviting a divided nation to stand against the evils of militarism, racism, and economic injustice. In the spirit of the Poor People’s Campaign of 1967/68, we are calling for a national moral revival and for fusion coalitions in every state to come together and advance a moral agenda,’ said the Rev. Dr. Barber.
‘There is a need for moral analysis, articulation of a moral agenda, and moral activism that fuses the critique of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, and national morality in a way that enables organizing among black, brown, and white people, especially in regions where great efforts have been made to keep them from forming alliances and standing together to change the political and social calculus ,’ he said.”
The story has already broken in several mainstream media sources, including ABC News and the Winston-Salem Chronicle. ABC reports [And this blog].
“Barber also leads a nonprofit called Repairers of the Breach and said that group, along with the Kairos Center, Union Theological Seminary and others will lead a movement that will concentrate on 25 states and the nation’s capital where voter suppression, poverty and other problems are prevalent. The groups plan major actions next summer, which would mark the 50th anniversary of the start of King’s campaign in 1968.”
Late on May 11, Barber sent out a letter. Here are excerpts:
I write with gratitude for each of you who have entrusted me to serve in leadership and with appreciation for the broad coalition of black, white, and brown; Christian, Muslim, Jewish and those who believe in a moral arc of the universe; young and old; gay and straight; Republican, Democrat, and unaffiliated who have joined our work over the past 12 years.
I am writing to let you know that I am stepping down from leadership of the NC NAACP in order to accept an invitation from moral leaders across the nation to serve and help lead a new Poor People’s Campaign & National Call for A Moral Revival. I feel this is a deeply spiritual call in this moment, so I’m stepping down but not stepping away from our work together in this movement.
When I first ran for State Conference President on the platform of moving “From Banquets to Battle,” my family, church and I committed to this work. In our first eight years together we were able to build a people’s coalition with strength to push reluctant Democrats to raise the minimum wage, win same day registration and voting, push back against re-segregation of schools in one of our largest districts, and free innocent black men from prison.
As a result of the work we were able to do together in that time, a foundation was laid for “Moral Mondays,” which emerged in the spring of 2013. Through sustained moral fusion organizing, with a race and class critique rooted in our deepest moral values, we pushed back against extremism for four long years to see the defeat of an extremist Republican governor, the election of more progressive members to the state Supreme Court, and the overturning of the monster voter suppression law that targeted African-Americans, according to a federal court, “with almost surgical precision.”
Our work is not over here in North Carolina. But, as you know, extremism is at work in other states and has gained power in all three branches of our federal government, much as it did here four years ago. This moment requires us to push into the national consciousness a deep moral analysis that is rooted in an agenda to combat systemic racism, poverty, war mongering, economic injustice, voter suppression, and other attacks on the most vulnerable.
This is why in this moment I am entrusting the NC NAACP to other strong leaders who can continue its work; I am not stepping away from the NAACP or from you, my NC NAACP Moral Movement family. I will continue to pastor Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro [NC], to support the NAACP’s work here in North Carolina and to serve on the national board of the NAACP. As we expand our moral fusion coalition model to over 20 other states as well as the nation’s Capitol, I am committed, as ever, to moving forward together, not one step back. . . .
Visit www.breachrepairers.org and learn more about how you can be involved in the Poor People Campaign’s National Call for a Moral Revival.
After issuing a Holocaust Memorial message that didn’t mention its Jewish victims; and after very awkward comments about the Congressional Black Caucus at a marathon news conference last week, the president seems to have discovered these concerns; but not all are convinced. Here’s the latest:
President Donald Trump on Tuesday denounced the recent rise in bomb threats against Jewish community centers across the country, saying the anti-Semitism and racism that is troubling America must be addressed.
“Anti-Semitism is horrible. And it’s gonna stop and it has to stop,” Trump told NBC News in an exclusive interview, after touring the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
Federal authorities have been investigating a wave of phoned-in bomb threats at least 10 Jewish community centers, including in Alabama, Ohio, Illinois, Texas and New York. No one was injured, and the threats appeared to be hoaxes, the Jewish Community Center Association of North America told NBC News on Monday.
“I think it’s terrible,” Trump said of the threats. “I think it’s horrible. Whether it’s anti-Semitism or racism or any — anything you wanna think about having to do with the divide. Anti-Semitism is, likewise, it’s just terrible.”
He added, “You don’t know where it’s coming from, but I hope they catch the people.”
The director of the Anne Frank Center rebuked President Donald Trump’s statement denouncing a spate of anti-Semitic crimes, calling it a ‘Band-Aid on the cancer of Antisemitism.’
“The president’s sudden acknowledgement is a Band-Aid on the cancer of Antisemitism that has infected his own administration,” Steven Goldstein, the executive director of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect in New York, said on Tuesday in a statement.
“His statement today is a pathetic asterisk of condescension after weeks in which he and his staff have committed grotesque acts and omissions reflecting Antisemitism, yet day after day have refused to apologize and correct the public record,” Goldstein said. “Make no mistake: The Antisemitism coming out of this Administration is the worst we have ever seen from any Administration.”
“Simply put, dismissing this issue as a political distraction or partisan concern does not change the fact that there has been a surge in anti-Semitic rhetoric and actions. Trump’s repeated failure to denounce anti-Semitism has consequences, emboldening bigots.
So it is honestly mind-boggling why Trump prefers to shout down a reporter or deride the concerns of the Jewish community. It is shocking to us that in this day and age, the president will not acknowledge — much less condemn — the rise in anti-Semitic rhetoric and actions. The issue of anti-Semitism is not a political one. But it is potentially lethal.
With the president’s leadership, it can get better. With his neglect or instigation, it can get worse.
In light of the rise of hate, there is a simple question that Trump should answer, not only for American Jews but to assuage Americans of all faiths — what will his administration do about the surge of anti-Semitism? What concrete steps will the White House take?”
Anti-semitism and racism. Very serious charges against a national administration. Looks like they’re not going away, despite the statement on Monday. And saying “it’s gonna stop and it has to stop,” isn’t the same as actually doing something to make it stop.
Racism and anti-semitism. They’re like the ghosts at his fancy table at Mar-a-Lago, and around the desk in the Oval Office.
Free Speech, Islamophobia & The Murder of Innocents
About a week ago, the struggle over free speech landed in my email inbox.
I’m mindful of, and disturbed by the steady stream of articles I see decrying the decline of free speech on and around U.S. universities. Many of these come from rightwing pundits; but others come from worried but otherwise progressive observers.
I’ve held back from joining the fray, mainly because it’s almost twenty years since I worked on a college campus, and it’s way too easy to succumb to hand-wringing fads and facile generalizations about “kids these days”; to moan about how academia is abandoning rational discourse, and its millennial occupants are all going to hell in a handbasket woven from organic fair trade dried kale.
Perhaps it’s so; but how would I know that? I live near some large campuses, but don’t hang out there.
Then a week or so ago, an advocacy group I’m part of was asked to sign on to a letter. The missive, written by Manzoor Cheema, for the Movement to End Racism and Islamophobia, called for a lecture series in Chapel Hill NC, to be shut down. The letter’s money quote was:
“we urge Extraordinary Ventures to say no to the voices of hatred and bigotry. We request Extraordinary Ventures to cancel Diana West’s upcoming speech and the future lecture series by ICON.”
At this point, for the record: “Extraordinary Ventures” is a local non-profit that mainly works with youth and adults who have autism; as part of their fundraising, they rent out a sizable community room.
ICON stands for “Issues Confronting Our Nation,” which is a very conservative association that sponsors a lecture series, which uses the Extraordinary Ventures room for the talks. ICON’s lineup of speakers is solidly, some would say rabidly rightwing: climate change deniers, dead-ender opponents of the Iran nuclear agreement, fans of Trumpian curbs on immigration — and denouncers of allegedly massive Islamic infiltration and terrorist-oriented subversion of American society, pushing for sharia and the whole nine yards.
The protest letter’s particular target was a lecture by Diana West, an author whose major work is American Betrayal, which according to reviewers (I haven’t read it) argues for a drastic reinterpretation of American diplomatic history since World War Two. West asserts that FDR, Eisenhower and other top officials over several decades were essentially tools of the Soviet Union.
I remember this argument, made by the ultra-right John Birch Society in its heyday. Numerous scholars, including some quite conservative, consider it, and West’s book, rubbish. Nevertheless, West uses this theme to insist that the U.S. government is once again being taken over by subversive, deadly aliens, in this case radical Muslims and their repressive, terrorist vanguard.
It was this “Commies then, Muslims now” trope that the letter I was sent wanted to shut down — along with the entire lecture series it was part of.
The basis for the letter’s demand was straightforward:
“Hate speech has real life consequences for marginalized communities. Muslims and immigrants in general have been demonized and dehumanized by the forces of hate. Laws and policies have have been introduced against them, including in North Carolina, as a result of concerted efforts by these forces. Diana West has contributed to the hysteria against Sharia law, which has led to anti-Sharia movement throughout the country, including in North Carolina. NC General Assembly members passed anti-Sharia law that was signed into law by Governor McCrory in 2013. There is an increased level of attacks against Muslims as a result of hate speech and institutional Islamophobia. Three Muslim students were murdered in execution style in Chapel Hill in early 2015, an incident that many believe was an anti-Muslim hate crime.”
Here I note one point of agreement: “hateful speech” does contribute to social hostility, and increases the odds of violence; that’s why it’s called “hate speech.”
But I part ways with the author as to the remedy, or at least the response. And here my view is that of a pretty old-fashioned First Amendment, ACLU-supporting liberal.
(The ACLU sets out their view in “Hate Speech on Campus”; and while the ICON lecture was not a campus event, it was held in the heart of Chapel Hill, the quintessential college town community in our region, and the letter was penned by a university researcher. By “the heart” I mean, of course, the venue’s location hard by the local Whole Foods store.)
ACLU: “Many universities, under pressure to respond to the concerns of those who are the objects of hate, have adopted codes or policies prohibiting speech that offends any group based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.
That’s the wrong response, well-meaning or not. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects speech no matter how offensive its content. Speech codes adopted by government-financed state colleges and universities amount to government censorship, in violation of the Constitution. And the ACLU believes that all campuses should adhere to First Amendment principles because academic freedom is a bedrock of education in a free society.
How much we value the right of free speech is put to its severest test when the speaker is someone we disagree with most. Speech that deeply offends our morality or is hostile to our way of life warrants the same constitutional protection as other speech because the right of free speech is indivisible: When one of us is denied this right, all of us are denied. . . .”
I couldn’t have said it better, though I have one point to add: if we let self-appointed groups insist that certain words or subjects be banned from public spaces as “offensive,” we are encouraging the forces of totalitarianism in our society, and dabbling with a remedy that’s worse than the disease. I was raised in such a repressive religious atmosphere, and know whereof I speak. Furthermore, what’s right on campus should be right off-campus as well.
Yet are there no limits at all to free speech? Yes there are. Here I agree with the Supreme Court, in a 1969 decision that declared
“the constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”
In the case of Diane West’s lecture, the difference would be between her arguing that infiltration by Islamic radicals will ruin the country, and a call to her hearers to gather weapons, attack the nearest Muslims, and summarily execute them as happened in the horrible, haunting triple murder the previous winter. In the latter case, I’d call 911 right away for serious help. [But I’ve seen no indication that West is ready to jeopardize her presumably lucrative career as a propagandist writer and lecturer by crossing that line.]
So what to do? Here I again defer to the ACLU:
“Where racist, sexist and homophobic speech is concerned, the ACLU believes that more speech — not less — is the best revenge.”
So vigorous peaceful protest is fine, as would be a counter-presentation. And I note that ICON itself says on its website that:
“[The] ICON Lecture Series is committed to free speech, diversity of thought and improving the balance and quality of the Triangle’s political conversation. . . . We welcome people of all political points of view at our events and invite them to participate enthusiastically in our question-and-answer sessions.”
I’d be willing to take them at their word and send some well-prepared, articulate dissenters into the program, to dismantle a racist/Islamophobic presentation with forcefully-argued facts and values.
So that’s what I said to the others in my group: I’d support a vigorous peaceful protest, but not a call to shut down the lecture and the series, unless either called for imminent violence.
Others said much the same thing, and we did not sign on to the letter.
In the event, West’s lecture was held as scheduled. A group of protesters gathered outside the building “with signs and chants” (the sponsor reported 15). There were no reports of arrests or violence, and life here in North Carolina goes on.
So does my encounter with this call to shut down free speech show that the campus and its environs are fatally infected with the virus of speech repression?
I can’t jump from one case as far as that conclusion. But the risk certainly seems to be there. Yet at the same time, the letter’s author is quite right that anti-Islamic agitation can have violent and even fatal consequences, as citizens of our community know to our sorrow. So the struggle against such agitation is real and ongoing; and debates over ways to engage it will likely be ongoing as well.
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The New York Times Magazine has a very striking & powerful profile of Larycia Hawkins, the former tenured professor at evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois. She was abruptly fired last year after publicly wearing a hijab “in solidarity” with Muslims facing Islamophobia.
For the record, she wasn’t converting to Islam, but this gesture of “solidarity,” especially by an articulate black woman intellectual was way too much for both Wheaton’s white male rulers & its mostly white constituency.
From “Meetings” — Looking Into the Heart of Darkness
Late 1959: During my senior year, at St. Mary’s High in Cheyenne Wyoming, it was announced one day that we would be treated to a field trip, all the way to Denver, to visit the nearest Catholic colleges: Regis, for men, run by the Jesuits; and nearby Loretto Heights, for women, operated by the Sisters of Loretto.
I enjoyed the trip, though I was already clear that, wherever I went to college, it would be at a secular school. And this resolve was greatly strengthened when we visited, of all places, the Regis College library.