Disharmonic convergence has fallen upon us.
The same weekend that people attended the long-planned Governor’s History Conference on Civil Rights, white supremacists and their allies held a meeting in Leith. The small North Dakota town also became the site of a corresponding rally organized to push back against the politics of hate.
The history conference featured Terrance Roberts of the Little Rock Nine, a major figure in the history of U.S. desegregation.
By chance, harmonic or otherwise, I am reading “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America” by Gilbert King. It was the winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. The picture “Devil in the Grove” paints of the South in the late 1940s and early 1950s is truly racist and terrible. Marshall, who later was named to the U.S. Supreme Court, traveled from city to city across the South defending blacks accused of rape and murder in a system that did not provide them with justice and often left them hanging by the neck from a rope.
In the South of Groveland, Fla., the sheriff, prosecutor and judges all failed tests of human decency, morality and Christian values. They violated the constitutional rights of three black men and killed a fourth out of a desire to appear “tough on black crime” and to protect the system. Deputies beat the Groveland Boys and tortured them until they gave false confessions.
Race issues in parts of the American South after World War II were not just about segregated education and voting rights, they were also about the violent oppression of black people, including by some in business, industry and government. It was done under a Confederate flag and often a white sheet.
Marshall shepherded this case, as well as the cases of other blacks sentenced to hang for crimes they likely did not commit, into the appeals process, where higher courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, read the Constitution with less-biased eyes. It’s part of what led to the civil rights movement. It was the application of constitutional law to an unlawful, oppressive system. It gave people, all people, hope.
That hope and its basis in the U.S. Constitution are lost on white supremacists such those who gathered in Leith.
And our reaction to Craig Cobb, the proponent of white supremacy who has a toehold in Leith, gets tangled up in that same Constitution that secured freedom for all U.S. citizens, no matter their race, gender or sexual orientation. The Constitution’s First Amendment gives Cobb the right to say what he will, until he crosses the line into hate speech.
People may not want Cobb in Leith, and they may not want to hear what he has to say. I know I do not. But neither should we be willing to take away his First Amendment rights, any more than we would want to take away the rights of the protesters who rallied against Cobb’s meeting in Leith with Jeff Schoep of Detroit, the commander of the National Socialist Movement, a white supremacist group. At least not until Cobb’s rhetoric becomes hate speech, which might be a blurry line and one that Cobb comes dangerously close to in his public utterances.
White supremacy has an ugly, brutal back story. Its ends violate the Bill of Rights. And when white supremacists articulate their hate in the larger community, they should not find comfort under the First Amendment.
(Ken Rogers’ column appears each Saturday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)