By Kent Willis, Executive DirectorThis may seem like an odd way of honoring Black History Month, but in talks I give, I often use the demise of slavery to explain why we defend the KKK’s right to express its views. Which is precisely what I will do here, but not until we take a quick trip back to 1770, to the zenith of slavery in the Americas.
On the eve of the American Revolution, African American slavery was not only legal throughout the entire New World, but it was practically unquestioned as an essential cog in the economic machinery built to reap the benefits of this vast land of abundant natural resources.
To varying degrees, from the tip of South America, to every colony in Canada and New England, there were slaves, plenty of them. In the colonies that would later form the core of the Confederacy, slaves outnumbered free men. And, a little farther south, in parts of the Caribbean, slaves often constituted as much as 90% of the population.
Yet a little over 100 years later, in 1888, when Brazil finally freed its slaves, the institution of slavery had been outlawed in every nation in the Western Hemisphere.
Much has been written about the causes of the painful but relatively quick fall of slavery in the New World, especially in the United States. Among them, the inherent hypocrisy of allowing human bondage in a society based on Enlightenment principles of freedom and justice, the conflicts with the religious views held by most of the population, and evolving economic theories in which the efficacy of slavery was increasingly questioned.
What is sometimes overlooked, though, in the great debate over slavery in this country is the instrument that allowed the debate to flourish: the First Amendment. Freedom of the press, the right to assemble, and the guarantee of uncensored speech provided the framework that protected the abolitionist movement, a movement that may have taken far, far longer to catch on without these rights.
We owe much of our progress to our founders’ notion that free speech is not merely about each individual’s right to express himself or herself without government interference, but also the idea that open debate in which all sides are allowed to be heard will, in the long haul, build up good ideas as surely as it will tear down bad ones.
And that brings us back to the beginning of this blog. When the ACLU defends the KKK’s right to spew their hateful gibberish, we are simply allowing a public debate to take place that reveals the KKK to be a minority of small-minded people with a grossly distorted and disgraceful view of history and race.
Free speech allowed the abolitionist movement -- like the suffrage and civil rights movements that followed -- to thrive and bring its progressive message to our society. At the same time, free speech has marginalized the KKK, the Nazis and others like them.
All of us who believe in equality and justice should appreciate the First Amendment. It hasn’t worked its magic on every aspect of our society -- which still suffers from too much inequality and too many injustices -- but it probably will.