Today’s student activists, we’re told, compare poorly to their predecessors from generations past. The activists of the the civil rights movement and student movement of the sixties, we’re told, would be embarrassed at the childishness, the petulance, the censoriousness of today’s campus organizers.
The following book excerpt, from William D. Workman’s The Case for the South (1960), suggests otherwise.
Its author, a white conservative from South Carolina, would become one of the earliest high-profile members of the Republican Party in that state, running as the GOP’s candidate for the United States Senate in 1962 on a platform that declared the party “the best hope, and perhaps the last hope, of stemming the liberal tide which has been sweeping the United States toward the murky depths of socialism.”
Here’s Workman writing in 1960 about a civil rights protest from six years earlier:
A mural depicting an early-day Charleston port scene, with Negro slaves at work about the South Carolina port, was ordered removed from an army cafeteria in Washington in March of 1954. Maj. Gen. L. K. Hastings, the quartermaster general, ordered the mural cut out because he was convinced that the painting was a potential powder keg which could increase racial tension. A number of Negroes at the installation thought the mural inoffensive, but others complained that it had prompted white workers to make derogatory remarks about Negroes.
Then, as would be expected, the District of Columbia unit of the NAACP urged removal of the mural because the slave picture reflects on race and color of Negroes, thus encouraging anti-Negro sentiment. At first blush, this business of commercial, literary, and musical censorship seems only the foolish petulance of a hyper-sensitive and inferiority-complexioned racial group which is chagrined over its own characteristic color. On second look, the practice begins to take on a more ominous outlook, something in the nature of the distortions so terrifyingly portrayed in George Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Petty complaints about racial insensitivity. Petulant whiners who don’t speak for their peers attempting to bend the larger society to their whims. Unserious people who must nonetheless be taken seriously, because their embrace of censorship represents an abandonment of shared values of tolerance that constitutes the first step on the road to a terrifying Orwellian future.
Any of that sound familiar?
Update | I said a little more about this on Twitter just now. Here’s a lightly edited version of that rant:
I’ve been meaning to for a while to do a search for vintage criticisms of 1960s movements that echoed today’s criticisms of campus activists, and this passage popped up practically as soon as I sat down on the keyboard. It was the third hit on a Google Books search for “negro” and “petulant” time limited to 1960 through 1962 — the second search I tried.
And while the language in the passage is pretty mind-blowing, the resonances with today don’t end there.
Look at what Workman is complaining about. The cafeteria mural is public speech that activists object to as racist on what he considers flimsy grounds. The activists appealed to a higher authority to remove the speech they find offensive instead of engaging with their adversaries in the marketplace of ideas. The authority complied for fear of lighting a match to a tense racial environment. Suppressing the speech wasn’t literally censorship, but the folks removing it were clearly motivated by censoring impulses. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, he admits, but it’s the precedent that should scare us—in acceding to these demands we’re sacrificing liberal values to the mob.
We’ve all read this argument a dozen times since spring.
And here’s where I bend over backwards to grant the reasonable premises of folks I disagree with.
Yes, some activists in this movement, as in any movement, are wrongheaded. Yes, we’ve recently seen actual impulses to actually censor people. That’s not a good thing. But the claims of such impulses and acts have far outstripped the reality.
Freedom of speech isn’t freedom from criticism. It isn’t freedom from anger. It isn’t freedom from pushback. It isn’t even freedom from someone telling you to shut up or trying to get you fired.
Freedom of speech isn’t freedom from having someone decide to take a mural down because it’s racist, and if you go around calling people who go through channels to take down racist murals “Orwellian,” you’re not actually a supporter of free speech. And if your fear of slippery slopes leads you to abandon antiracist organizing projects the minute things get heated? Well, that’s on you, not them. That’s not them abandoning liberal values, that’s you abandoning an antiracist movement.
If you want to nudge some campus activists to think about speech rights in a different way, that’s awesome. I do too. Many activists do too. But apocalyptic slippery-slope rhetoric—rhetoric that attacks people engaging in legitimate speech acts that you happen to find uncomfortable as opponents of free expression? That kind of rhetoric serves neither the cause of antiracism nor the cause of free speech.
It puts you on the wrong side of both questions.