Commentary

Cartoon Protest Pits NAACP against Free Speech

For years, New York City’s flagship main Public Library has annually honored a group of “literary lions.” Long a civil rights and civil liberties lion, Michael Meyers, born in Harlem, is a former assistant director of the NAACP; personal assistant to its late executive director, Roy Wilkins; and a protege of one of my mentors, Dr. Kenneth Clark. Clark’s research influenced the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling that declared public-school segregation unconstitutional. Yet on Feb. 21, at the annual meeting in New York of the century-old NAACP, Meyers, refused permission to speak, was removed by NAACP security.

The meeting was held in the midst of a furor of protest by the Rev. Al Sharpton and other black public figures over a cartoon by the New York Post’s Sean Delonas showing a chimpanzee shot and killed by the police (as had just actually happened to a pet chimpanzee gone berserk). Said one of the cops: “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.”

Interpreting this as a racist attack on President Barack Obama, NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous and its chairman, Julian Bond, had joined the angry chorus of protesters calling for a boycott of the New York Post, and the firing of the cartoonist and the paper’s editor. They have worked to make this a national issue if these demands were not met.

The two NAACP leaders had also called the cartoon “an invitation to assassination of the President of the United States.”

Meyers, a widely publicized defender of the First Amendment, had publicly objected to “this exercise in sheer racial rhetoric,” adding: “Demagoguery is not the standard of effective leadership in addressing serious social justice issues.” Meyers has often written and lectured on race relations, police abuse, housing and education. And as a passionate civil libertarian, he said of the rage to punish those connected with the cartoon:

“All political pundits deserve a wide berth for social criticism and for parodying and poking fun at and criticizing our political leaders, no matter the skin color or race of the public official.”

Attending the NAACP’s annual meeting in the ballroom of the New York Hilton Hotel, Meyers rose following a member’s speech calling for a boycott of the New York Post but also of all the national enterprises of its owner, Rupert Murdock. At the microphone, addressing Chairman Julian Bond, Meyers began: “I wish to speak in opposition.”

“I do not recognize you,” Bond sharply cut off the NAACP’s former assistant director and personal assistant to Roy Wilkins. “Your views are not welcomed here.”

I’ve known Meyers for many years. We used to be frequent dissenters on the New York Civil Liberties Union Board. I have never seen him intimidated by anyone anywhere. Michael turned and continued to speak to the assembly. Bond cut off his microphone and summoned security personnel as the NAACP’s new president, the youngest in its history, Benjamin Jealous, sat silently. (He has pledged to make the association a regenerated force for social change, but apparently not internal dissent.)

The contemptuous dismissal of this decidedly uncowardly lion of the civil rights movement reminded me of a dispute years ago between Meyers and Bond. The latter had urged the Pennsylvania affiliate of the NAACP to press the state board of education to bar Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn from the schools because of its inclusion of what newspapers prefer to call “the n-word.” That novel was and remains the most powerful antiracist classic in our literature. Meyers knew that, and protested, but I was astonished that Bond, an accomplished writer and cultural historian, would engage in such philistine miseducation.

In the considerable press coverage of the fiery reaction to the New York Post cartoon by Sharpton, the NAACP, et al., I saw no mention of the imperious ouster from the NAACP annual meeting of Michael Meyers.

Significantly, this analytical dissenter, as creator and head of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, has long directed its “Civil Rights and Race Relations Project” in the city’s schools. (I am not aware of any regular NAACP presence in those schools.)

Since 1989, in this project scores of volunteer discussion leaders - mostly lawyers and law students - work weekly in New York high school or junior high school classes to, Meyers explains, “help equip students with the critical thinking skills and information they need in order to challenge common stereotypes and myths about people because of skin color, religion, national origin, disability, sex, ethnicity or sexual orientation.

“They neither lecture nor proselytize,” he adds. “They use Socratic teaching methods, role play, Devil’s advocacy, courtroom scenarios and mock trials to engage the students in examining all kinds of stereotypes. Students who were once ‘passive learners’ become interactive learners, avid debaters, and thoughtful conversationalists.”

Meyers should invite Bond and the 36-year-old NAACP president, Benjamin Jealous, to audit some these classes. And I’d like to be in one of them if Sharpton were there debating with some of these students about, among other things, free speech.

Nat Hentoff is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the libertarian Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow.