Picking our fights

Everyone knows that Rosa Parks once refused to give her seat on a city bus in Montgomery, Ala., to a white man, and that that simple action started a revolution as profound as anything that has ever occurred in this nation.

That was almost half a century ago — Dec. 1, 1955. Schoolchildren in Detroit will celebrate that anniversary Monday. But what very few know is that Rosa Parks was not the first black woman to refuse to surrender her seat.

Nine months before, a teenager named Claudette Colvin did the same thing. She struggled, screamed, and was hauled off the bus in handcuffs. The black leadership of Montgomery thought about using her case as the vehicle to challenge segregation.

But they didn’t. Why? Claudette was considered immature, prone to emotional breakdowns, and had screamed profanities at the policemen removing her from the bus. Besides, she was unmarried and pregnant. The leadership decided not to make her the test case.

There was a second woman soon afterward. But she was poorly spoken, had family problems and was also deemed unsuitable as a poster child to battle the evils of segregation. Finally, when Rosa Parks was arrested, the activists knew they’d found someone worthy of the cause.

The middle-aged seamstress was, as Taylor Branch noted in his magnificent book, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years: “humble enough to be claimed by the common folk and yet dignified enough to command the respect of the leading classes.”

Choosing one’s battles always has been essential to any cause. I was reminded of that last week when a woman, a proud liberal who was not even afraid to use the term, called me to complain bitterly about my recent column praising the ACLU (“No safety without freedom,” Metro Times, Nov. 12-18).

She told me she would never support the American Civil Liberties Union again. She understood why they had to defend the Nazis who wanted to march in Illinois some years back. She had no problem with their vigorous battles against the excesses of the Patriot Act, or on behalf of those wrongly persecuted since Sept. 11, 2001.

But she was beyond angry, she told me, that the ACLU had signed on to support NAMBLA. For a moment, I thought she was like the callers I get who believe Hillary Clinton is scheming to bring down the nation.

Then I found out that she knew exactly what she was talking about. Six years ago, two scumbags raped and murdered a 10-year-old boy in Cambridge, Mass. They were caught and speedily convicted of murder. One of them turned out to have visited NAMBLA’s Web site and had some of the organization’s printed material.

NAMBLA, for the innocent, is short for the North American Man-Boy Love Association, which is dedicated to the proposition that it is a good thing for adult men to have sex with little boys. Incidentally, I think this is sick, twisted, evil and wrong. But we have freedom of speech in this country, and while I would be in favor of throwing NAMBLA members under a jail for acting their fantasies out, they have every right to try to persuade lawmakers otherwise.

Now for where the ACLU fits in. Three years ago, the family of Jeffrey Curley, the murdered boy, sued NAMBLA, saying it was responsible for what happened to their son, because of the material on its Web site. And the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts jumped in to defend NAMBLA.

This was truly horrifying to many, including me. Frankly, when I learned about the case, I thought the ACLU had made a mistake, and had taken up a cause that would cripple it, and perhaps in the long run hurt its ability to defend civil liberties. I feared that many people would only remember the ACLU was defending men who believe in raping little boys.

Lawyers I know tell me that the ACLU probably didn’t have to get involved at all in this case, which has now dragged on for years. Past U.S. Supreme Court decisions have firmly established that organizations are protected under the First Amendment in such cases unless they clearly incite criminal behavior. And nothing in the NAMBLA materials suggested raping and killing little boys.

Yet the ACLU said the freedom of speech issue here was so important the organization couldn’t afford to play it safe. “(We do) not advocate sexual relations between adults and children. What the ACLU does advocate is robust freedom of speech for everyone. The lawsuit involved here would strike at the heart of freedom of speech ... the case is as simple as it is central to true freedom of speech: Those who do wrong are responsible for what they do; those who speak about it are not.”

What does that really mean? Imagine for a moment that I were a member of New Detroit. Enraged at suburban indifference to the city’s plight, I blow up the Somerset Collection. Ought the Somerset survivors be allowed to sue New Detroit?

Logically they could, if the courts rule against NAMBLA. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the ACLU needed to take this case. As a posting on the Massachusetts branch Web site says, “It is easy to defend freedom of speech when the message was something many people find at least reasonable. But the defense of freedom of speech is most critical when the message is one most people find repulsive.”

NAMBLA makes me physically sick. The ACLU should make us all very proud.

Root of the problem? WDIV-TV’s Sunday “Flashpoint” program was devoted to the future of the Detroit Public Schools. There was mainly heat and very little light. There was hollering about racism and voting rights. There was debate as to whether the mayor was incompetent. There was, however, virtually no discussion about the only real issue: The urgent need for the schools to educate Detroit’s children well enough to give them a fighting chance for success in today’s world. Sigh.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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