In the last two months at Brown, it sometimes feels as though we’ve been witness not to a news-generating controversy but a campus-wide social experiment. Following the protests of Commissioner Ray Kelly’s Taubman lecture, it seemed like every student had to process the events, face the central issue and articulate a stance, summed up in the credos we heard thrown around for weeks. “I don’t agree with what you say, but I defend to the death your right to say it.” “Racism is not up for debate.” “The First Amendment guarantees many things, but not the right to never be offended.” “We don’t have to tolerate the intolerant.”
Throughout this rocky semester, we remembered a quotation, too. It was from Professor Francoise Hamlin’s course, “History of the 1960s,” in a letter from a journalist named William Bradford Huie. The letter was written after the death of fourteen-year-old Emmet Till, who was brutally slaughtered during a family visit to Mississippi by two southern white bigots in August, 1955. The picture of Till’s body became a mass media icon, the human wreckage of Jim Crow’s cruel and unbending hegemony, and a moment of reckoning for white America. It’s easy to forget that in the year Till was murdered, only 5% of Americans considered Civil Rights the most important national problem; even as late as 1966, Martin Luther King had a meager 33% approval rating. In a political environment where demanding justice was uncouth, the Till photograph at the time served as civil rights’ crucial emotional breakthrough.
“When I explain a murderer, I am not seeking forgiveness for him; I am seeking a cure, for him and for those who come after him,” Huie wrote after publishing his story about Till’s murder. “Will cancer be cured by making propaganda against it?”
When the two perpetrators were found not guilty after 67 minutes of deliberation by an all-white jury, Huie convinced the men, protected by double-jeopardy laws, to confess to murdering Till in a joint interview for Look Magazine. The story, published in January, 1956, solidified Till’s case as an undeniable atrocity, and spurred momentum among politicians for the passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act. But the story also came with a cost. Not only did Huie pay a huge sum to the violent bigots for them to describe in bone chilling detail how they murdered Till ($4,000, or over $33,000 in 2012 dollars), but he also published insights that complicated the powerful narrative of Till’s death that had then begun to stir Americans’ conscience. In Look, Huie reported details about the perpetrators’ families and their heroic acts as war veterans, as well as Till’s various trysts in Chicago. In short, Huie published an astonishing conclusion: Till, as well as his perpetrators, were human.
The story didn’t fit neatly into the message of the moment, one that made Till out to be a martyr. Later, Huie would receive a letter from one civil rights activist, a woman of color. She wrote:
Your story is a disaster. The Till case has been of immense propaganda and fundraising value to Negroes and their white supporters in the race struggle … Now you have spoiled the image. Not only have you made Emmett Till into a less sympathetic character, but after I read your account I felt sorry for everybody: for the murderers as well as the brash young Negro. You knocked some of the crusading zeal out of me: I just wanted to sit down and weep for the whole human race. But that’s a luxury I can’t afford because I’m a Negro and I must fight. You can afford it: you can afford to understand the tragedy of both the executioner and the victim. But I can’t … The effect of your effort has been to discourage me and to neutralize a valuable propaganda weapon in the fight for racial justice.
Here is Huie’s reply, the letter read in Hamlin’s class:
“Humanity needs crusaders; Causes need partisans. Crusaders and partisans prefer propaganda as their weapon, not truth. But humanity also needs understanding. And truth, not propaganda, promotes understanding.
To me a brash young Negro preoccupied with sex is not an unsympathetic character. And when I explain a murderer, I am not seeking forgiveness for him; I am seeking a cure, for him and for those who come after him. Will cancer be cured by making propaganda against it?”
Racism, like cancer, doesn’t deserve respect, but it does deserve a cure. And like any human problem, that would seem to require our understanding. Most people agree this kind of understanding can’t be reached with pure logic, or a persuasive talking point, or after one night in Alumnae Hall. But it begins, at least according to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with a key ingredient. “If you love your enemies,” he said in his seminal “Loving Your Enemies” speech in 1957, “you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption.”
Do you like Ray Kelly? In a weeks-long spree of public forums — Wednesday’s assembly in Alumane Hall, the next day’s Teach-In in Salomon, the open dinners with President Paxson, the more recent Janus town hall — Brown students resoundingly said “no.” That’s fine. If your mission is to defeat policymakers like Kelly, you’re certainly not required to like him. But, regardless of your politics, we’d be better off taking King’s advice. King emphasizes that he doesn’t preach “Like Your Enemy.” “There are a lot of people that I find it difficult to like,” King said. “I don’t like what they do to me…and other people.” But the Greek principle of agape (ah-GAH-pay) — “a love that seeks nothing in return…an overflowing love”— informs a kind of love that “is greater than like.”
That notion was controversial, and still is. That Malcolm X thought of King as “a modern Uncle Tom” is a reminder that allies in the struggle for equality disagreed, sometimes viciously, over method and substance. “The goal of…King,” Malcolm continued, in a televised interview, “is to get Negroes to forgive the people who have brutalized them for 400 years.” In a fascinating moment, Malcolm turns the debate on the moderator, the psychologist and civil rights titan Kenneth C. Clark. Malcolm quotes Clark for his own purpose, citing an earlier article in which Clark characterized King’s brand of non-violent resistance as “psychologically burdensome.” Clark interrupts. “There is one correction, Mr. Malcolm,” he responds. “I said that his methods are effective. His philosophy, of love of the oppressor, I thought that was psychologically burdensome.”
Malcolm and Clark’s debate never went away. Those who preferred that Kelly remain silent might point Clark to another kind of love — a love they don’t want adulterated by someone whose policies have threatened the livelihoods of students, and caused pain to our family on campus, pain that those of us not subjected to systemic oppression can’t understand. They point out, correctly, that those of us born of privilege must acknowledge that divide before we can walk around preaching civility (or quoting King). “You can’t know what it’s like to be profiled,” one protestor in our BPR family told us late one night. “Just like I can’t know what it’s like to be white.” We agree. For many students that share our personal backgrounds of race and privilege, it’s increasingly difficult to acknowledge, let alone transcend, that difference in experience.
But what we haven’t heard, from anyone in the debate, is the idea that this acknowledgement alone is the only issue, or that it might preclude King’s description of agape.
As editors, we didn’t publish these remarks to make a point about being cordial, or some vain posturing statement about democracy or free speech, or even to take sides in this debate. We published Ray Kelly because we love him.
It’s not, and it doesn’t. We imagine this is why King said that, “In order to love your enemies, you must begin by analyzing self.” But he also said that the “weapon of love” was chosen because it was the most powerful, not because of the convenience of waiving carte blanche a half-millennia of cruelty. It’s just better than anything else at disturbing the “sense of contentment” that takes root and metastasizes in any community that enjoys a comfortable proximity from injustice. “You’ve just got to love the hell out of them,” Congressman John Lewis recalls in a conversation with King before the 1963 March on Washington. It’s tempting to confuse Lewis’ and King’s ideology for acquiescence, as some students have pointed out that we’re not required to tolerate the intolerant. And we agree with them, too. As editors, we didn’t publish these remarks to make a point about being cordial, or some vain posturing statement about democracy or free speech, or even to take sides in this debate. We published Ray Kelly because we love him.
We love Ray Kelly. We love him in King’s sense of agape — and for us, agape stands for more than a philosophic novelty dug up from the past. It stands for a notion of recognition through understanding, without which politics isn’t possible. For his supporters, that could mean a kind of respect for a policymaker who truly believes he’s doing the right thing. For his opponents, it might mean loving one’s opponent enough to want to change his mind, and his heart. Ray Kelly is not Roy Bryant or J.W. Milam. But the moral momentum from the Till murder (the Montgomery Bus Boycott began three months later) gained considerable speed when a mild-mannered journalist engaged in a quiet question-and-answer, as two murderers described their crime like it were any other day. The perpetrators walked away with an enormous sum of money for their time. But without Huie’s interview, and Bryant and Milam’s published testimony, what some historians describe as “the catalyst of the civil rights movement” might have been permanently lost to history. Are we really to believe, then, that Milam and Bryant deserve better treatment than Kelly?
Not everyone agrees with this logic. “That’s absurd,” remarked one of our graduate student friends in the Blue Room, shortly after October’s events. “There’s nothing that can happen in some stupid Q&A that’s going to make Ray Kelly change his mind.” Besides overlooking the razor close margins of on-the-fence voters who might need their minds changed, it’s hard to imagine a prophecy more self-fulfilling: a man will simply never change his mind — so why bother? The same logic would dictate that what happened inside Alumnae Hall the next day must also somehow be impossible — when students, angry and confused and looking for explanations, tried for a moment to communicate.
If you believe Kelly is a lost cause, we would respectfully point to a historical record replete with many who were on the wrong side of history but came full circle. “I know now I was wrong. Intolerance had no place in America,” said former Senator Robert Byrd in 2005, on his early ties to the KKK, adding: “I apologized a thousand times…and I don’t mind apologizing over and over again.” Alabama Governor George Wallace (“Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”) famously asked for, and received, forgiveness from some civil rights leaders. We don’t think the NYPD deserves to be compared to the KKK. Then again, some do. And some have plenty of other comparisons. Either way, these are victories that came about not because of shoutdowns and disinvitations (since it was often these men who were doing the shouting and disinviting), but instead a nation in conversation with itself and its conscience. For those who would have preferred to keep him silenced, then, the territory that inhabits Commissioner Kelly’s mind isn’t a lost cause so much as a lost opportunity.
Still, the arguments of some student protestors have complete merit. Plenty of students want to defend a community built on principles of justice, fairness and equality. They point to bigger ideas of free speech — the broader principle of honoring all democratic actors as equal, and the threat that comes from legitimizing a figure who doesn’t view their own voices as legitimate. It’s true: not everyone has equal access to the megaphone. That’s always our goal for BPR, a tiny additional drop in the dialogue that can come from passing the megaphone — as long as it’s in service of understanding, not propaganda. We think this qualifies. Commissioner Kelly’s speech represents a pressing judicial question currently being litigated in federal court. It also could have implications for questions still standing before a campus disciplinary committee. And it might answer the questions of students who would otherwise always wonder what they missed that day. But if, in spite of these things, it still strikes you as inconceivable that we would publish this speech on account of Commissioner Kelly’s politics, then this website is not for you. The goal of beating back racism is a fundamental principle that unites this campus. But agape is a principle that is also uniquely ours at Brown, and the confidence that opponents can be bested with ideas and compassion.
As the lawyer’s phrase goes, “When you have the facts, pound the facts. When you don’t have the facts, pound the table.” When it comes to this semester’s debate, this community has the facts. We hope that’s what you’ll see in BPR’s coverage this semester — whether it’s in Francis Torres’ fact-by-fact analysis of Kelly’s remarks, Henry Knight and Sabin Ray’s defense of free speech, Lewie Pollis’ appraisal of legitimate protest, our liveblog from Alumnae Hall, or Emily Kassie’s viral media production, bringing viewers inside the auditorium to experience firsthand the events of that day. In these features, the NYPD is afforded a measure of civility and respect matched only by the toughness of the questions it faced, questions that often come from a Brown community that demand an explanation for policies that are perhaps two court cases or less from standing permanently on the wrong side of history.
Throughout the semester on this issue, we preferred the facts over the table, the cure over propaganda. To the people who disagree, here is our response.
We love you, too.
Editor’s Note: BPR invites readers to share comments, opinions, experiences, letters and articles in response to our ongoing coverage of Commissioner Ray Kelly. Please send your response to firstname.lastname@example.org, and place “Ray Kelly” in the subject line.