ACLU of Massachusetts Development Director Steve Hurley wrote this guest blog.
"Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"
Those words--originally directed to U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy by Massachusetts resident Joseph Welch, lead counsel for the U.S. Army during the "McCarthy hearings" in 1954--came to mind earlier this week upon hearing of Nate Little's verbal attack on Harry Belafonte.
Little is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Republican Party, who contacted the press this week to call Belafonte's political views "extreme," "repugnant," and--here comes that last refuge of any scoundrel--"anti-American." State GOP Chairman Bob Maginn kept up the attack today.
What prompted this attack? It turns out that Harry Belafonte is hosting a fundraising event in New York for Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, whom Mr. Little would like to defeat. And like Joseph McCarthy in his quest to "defeat" communism, it appears that Nate Little will stoop to the character assassination of anyone who gets in the way of his goal--or, anyone who offers the opportunity for a little more publicity in his quest to achieve it.
To be sure, Harry Belafonte has said some controversial things--how could one agitate for social change and equal justice for more than half a century without doing so? But just as surely, Harry Belafonte has demonstrated through his lifetime of activism that he cares deeply for our country and its people, and is a patriot of the highest order.
Perhaps Mr. Little is unaware of Harry Belafonte's record of courage and leadership in the struggle for equality in our country? Maybe he doesn't know that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called Belafonte's popularity and commitment "a key ingredient to the global struggle for freedom and a powerful tactical weapon in the civil rights movement here in America." Quite possibly he's unaware that Belafonte served our country in the U.S. Navy and as an advisor to the Peace Corps, or that he became only the second American to be appointed as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. He may not know that Belafonte's activism has reached far past our borders, to include setting in motion the events that led to the "We Are the World" benefit for African famine relief, and serving as a leader of the campaign to end apartheid in South Africa and to free his friend, Nelson Mandela.
Or, maybe Mr. Little does know that history--but considers the issues for which Harry Belafonte has spent his life fighting "quaint" and "obsolete," to use the terms popularized by former Bush Administration Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in reference to the Geneva Conventions.
Of course, thanks to the First Amendment Mr. Little has every right to express his opinion about Mr. Belafonte, especially since Mr. Belafonte is a very public figure. Ironically, Mr. Little owes some of his freedom to speak his mind, and to have newspapers cover his thoughts, to… Harry Belafonte.
On March 29, 1960, in response to the arrest of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Montgomery, Alabama, the "Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom in the South" ran a full-page advertisement in the New York Times entitled "Heed Their Rising Voices."
Written by Belafonte and Bayard Rustin, the ad argued that racist southern officials had used lawless tactics against Dr. King and others, applauding those who "engaged in widespread non-violent demonstrations in positive affirmation of the right to live in human dignity as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights," and appealed for funds for Dr. King's legal defense and other civil rights initiatives.
The ad mentioned no names, but Alabama officials sued for libel, claiming they could be identified as participants in what the ad described as an "unprecedented wave of terror" against civil rights activists. Their aim was to stop media coverage and thus undermine the movement's strategy of putting racism on display for the entire world to witness.
The strategy worked, at first. A local jury imposed a $500,000 judgment against the paper, and similar suits brought that amount to $3 million--enough to put the Times out of business and to scare off any other newspapers that dared to cover the civil rights movement.
On appeal--with the ACLU as amicus curiae--Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., joined by six members of the Supreme Court, reversed that decision in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, a landmark First Amendment ruling that remains a hallmark of free speech jurisprudence in America:
"[W]e consider this case against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open," wrote Justice Brennan, "and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials…."
There is no question that the Sullivan decision strengthened freedom of speech and of the press in our country, and that we are a freer nation because of it. One immediate result of the decision was to free the press to report on the civil rights movement. Media coverage of the brutalities inflicted upon civil rights supporters made clear the violence of racism itself. As author and Pulitzer-prize winning New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis later wrote, "There, on television, were grown men and women screaming obscenities at little black children trying to go to desegregated schools," and public outrage at these images forced Congress to act, leading to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act.
In the years that followed, the Sullivan case emboldened the American press to challenge official government "truths," even when that meant criticizing government officials, including the questioning of the U.S. war in Vietnam and the abuses of power arising from the Watergate cover-up. More recently, when traditional news outlets too often have failed to question government abuses of power, new forms of social media and public protest have emerged to give voice to calls for equal rights, as evidenced in the Arab Spring movement in the Middle East and the Occupy movement in the U.S. and worldwide.
Today, freedom of speech and equal rights are key pillars of our democracy, thanks to those who have fought to defend civil liberties and extend civil rights--including a leader and patriot named Harry Belafonte. Mr. Little would do well to reflect a bit more on American history, and ask himself whether he'd really prefer an America more influenced by Sen. Joseph McCarthy's vision, than by Harry Belafonte's.
Note: On May 22, 2012, the ACLU of Massachusetts will honor Harry Belafonte with the Roger Baldwin Award at its annual Bill of Rights Dinner. More information is available at www.aclum.org/dinner.
The author is solely responsible for the content.