As a member of the American Civil Liberties Union and a supporter of the First Amendment, my choice was clear, if painful. I had to support the Ku Klux Klan's right to hold a demonstration/march in Washington today.
Few groups are as despised as the Klan. Their legacy of hate and violence is, unfortunately, part of our history. Still, to oppose the Klan's right to peacefully demonstrate would diminish that right for all.
As part of an ACLU outreach effort, I recently met with D.C. students to try to explain why the ACLU was supporting the Klan's right to march, and even more important, why violence was not an appropriate counter response.
It wasn't easy. The youngsters were well-versed on the implications of the First Amendment but passionate in their hatred of the Klan. Additionally, the irony of a black woman standing in their midst defending the rights of white supremacists was not lost on them or me.
I tried to tell them about some talk shows I had once hosted for a local TV station on which I had the infamous distinction of having the Klan's grand imperial wizard as a guest as well as racist America's newest hero, David Duke.
These shows were always difficult. Internally, there were those who argued that in giving these individuals air time, we were providing them with a forum from which to espouse their racist views. Maybe. But I believe information will always defeat ignorance and that thinking people find little to fear from men who face the world wearing dunce caps. I believe that there is much more to fear from a society that would suppress unpopular groups and force them underground, away from the light of reason, for public exposure is no friend to rumor and misinformation.
Did I persuade the students? Some. One student, for example, said she could now see why the ACLU supported for the Klan's right to demonstration. It was "insurance," she said. By protecting the Klan's First Amendment rights, other groups would be guaranteed the chance to be heard.
My most successful argument, though, was when we used role reversals to discuss the '60s and the civil rights demonstrations. One reluctant student became the "Bubba" of the group and found the same words he had used against the Klan now being used to deny a civil rights organization the right to demonstrate. Hard lessons, difficult decisions. But no one ever said protecting the Constitution was easy.
Toward the end of my discussion with students, we talked about the best way to counter the Klan's demonstration. One student admitted that during last month's Klan demonstration, he found himself responding to the mob mentality. He joined in throwing bottles at the Klan but couldn't recall how the violence started. All he remembered was somebody saying, "There they are. Let's get them."
Would he do it again? Maybe. But now he was at least willing to give more thought to what his reaction would be and to what it should be.
I argued that it would be tremendously symbolic if those who did choose to counter-demonstrate, at an appropriate moment, turned their backs on the Klan. That image, captured by TV cameras, would show the world that counter-demonstrators thought Klan members so insignificant, so cowardly, that they turned their backs on them.
But the same student who had seen the ACLU position as "insurance" put things in another perspective. "When I see the Klan," she said, "I want to do to them all the things they did to us. But since I know I'm like that, and that I would react violently, I intend to stay away. I respect myself too much to get caught up in their stupidity."
Out of the mouths of babes. Would that we all show that same degree of maturity. -- Carol Randolph