By William Mattox
I have a suggestion for college students tired of being ridiculed as emotionally-fragile “snowflakes” constantly in need of “safe spaces”–and for their elders who often think they’re more thick-skinned than they really are.
Why don’t they–why don’t we all–commemorate Black History Month this February by considering some very important First Amendment lessons a group of courageous students taught the citizens of Tallahassee, Florida more than a half-century ago.
But first a “trigger warning”: What follows is apt to offend those who think they’ve always had perfect judgment about every social conflict.
Golden Rule Not Here
In December, 1960, a group of students from Florida A & M University (FAMU) led a sidewalk protest in front of McCrory’s, a Tallahassee department store that only served whites at its lunch counter. The protests were led by a spunky young co-ed wearing sunglasses named Patricia Stephens, who is perhaps the Greatest Civil Rights Heroine Most Americans Have Never Heard Of. (The sunglasses were necessary because Patricia’s eyes had been badly damaged by some tear gas sprayed in her face at an earlier protest.)
Undaunted, Patricia carried signs along with other student protestors. Or perhaps I should say they sought to carry signs. Because during the protest, a young hooligan broke their line, ripped up some signs, and ran away.
Ironically, this action only confirmed the message of one undamaged sign: “The Golden Rule Does Not Apply Here.” But it didn’t deter the student protestors. In fact, at one point, they refused to post bail after being arrested on questionable charges, thereby starting a seven-week “jail-in” to call attention to the evils of racial discrimination.
In the face of such macro-aggressions, one might imagine that the FAMU students would have raged against the white establishment. Yet, curiously, they did the exact opposite. Trained in the methodology of non-violent protest, the FAMU students carried signs that had a carefully-calibrated mix of messages that were simultaneously bold and non-threatening. Sweet and spicy. Conscience-pricking and winsome.
Put another way, the FAMU students exercised their free speech rights in a manner foreign to many protestors today. Rather than venting their frustrations with outrageous messages designed to amuse or one-up their comrades, these students humbly sought to win over people with appeals to reason and goodwill.
And persuade people they did. During the 1950s and 1960s, FAMU protests helped integrate Tallahassee’s city buses, lunch counters, movie theatres, and swimming pools.
In recent years, I’ve had many opportunities to tell this story to students, thanks to the Village Square, a Tallahassee-based organization that seeks to bridge political, religious, and racial divides. I’ve relished these opportunities partly because I want today’s students to wrestle with a question which ought to challenge all of us:
Can you imagine yourself ever behaving like the young hooligan in this story?
At first blush, most cannot. But the sad reality is that many college campuses today have become hotbeds of bullying and intimidation. Speech which challenges “politically correct” doctrine is often shouted down. Or relegated to tightly-restricted “free speech zones.” Or deemed unworthy of respectful consideration – even if presented by someone who grew up under Jim Crow (see, for example, the protests against Condoleezza Rice’s invitation to be Rutgers’ 2014 commencement speaker).
The point here is that all of us (whether on the left or the right) are capable of trampling on the freedoms of others. And the danger appears to be particularly great when one holds considerable power – as the white supremacists did in the Jim Crow South and as progressives do on today’s college campuses.
Now, none of this would surprise our nation’s founders (who had their own shortcomings, lest we forget). As James Madison famously said, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” And part of the reason Madison penned the First Amendment is so that the public square could be filled with the vigorous exchange of (both popular and unpopular) ideas.
To be sure, few Americans have ever exercised their free speech rights as effectively as Patricia Stephens and her fellow FAMU students. As we celebrate this Black History Month, all of us should seek to learn from–and follow–these college students’ courageous example.
William Mattox directs the education policy center at the James Madison Institute. He served on the Tallahassee Civil Rights Landmark Committee.