Civil Liberties The National Newsletter of the ACLU #380, Spring 1994 (c) 1994 American Ci
Civil Liberties The National Newsletter of the ACLU
#380, Spring 1994 (c) 1994 American Civil Liberties Union
First Amendment Shock: An Unusual Civil Liberties Story
By Jean Carey Bond
"Monolithic the African American community is not," said Attorney
Anthony P. Griffin when Civil Liberties asked him what kinds of reactions,
among black people particularly, had greeted his legal representation of a
Ku Klux Klansman. Indeed, the range of those reactions reconfirmed, if
any reconfirmation was necessary, that the black community is just as
complex and has just as broad a spectrum of attitudes, beliefs and
myth-systems as do other communities in our diverse society.
The First Amendment on paper is one thing; the First Amendment in
action is quite another. When a person of unpopular viewpoints exercises
his or her rights of free speech and association, the result can be, as
Griffin puts it, "shocking." The defense of such a person can produce
shock as well -- said Griffin: "The combination of Klan, plus color, plus
a history of violence, plus the ability of race to dominate a discussion,
has created shock, cheers, bravos and boos!"
On the support side, the Black Heritage Committee of Galveston,
Texas, at a function held last August attended by nearly 800 persons, gave
Griffin its Citizen of the Year Award. In presenting the award, the
Committee cited his representation of the Klan, along with other work.
But hostility was also forthcoming: Immediately after the Houston
Chronicle reported his defense of Klansman Lowe, under a headline that
read "Black Lawyer Giving His All to the Klan," Griffin was invited to
appear on black radio stations in Chicago and Houston. Out of about 100
call-ins to the talk shows on which he was a guest, fewer than five
callers expressed support.
The Texas State Conference of the National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was so incensed that it removed
Griffin from his volunteer post as general counsel, claiming that his
representation of both the NAACP's and the Klan's interests constituted a
conflict of interest. At the same time, at least five NAACP chapters in
the state have continued to call Griffin, seeking legal advice.
In addition to dropping him as general counsel, seven members and
officers of the Texas State Conference wrote to NAACP Executive Director
Dr. Benjamin Chavis asking that Griffin's NAACP membership "be immediately
suspended ... until after a thorough investigation of his actions in
defense of the Ku Klux Klan in court in Austin, Texas on September 29,
1993 in the Texas commission on Human Rights vs. Michael Lowe, Grand
Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan." To date, Griffin has not heard from the
national office regarding this request.
In contrast to the NAACP, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) has
offered Griffin membership. While some lawyers at the Texas NAACP
gathering where Griffin was removed as general counsel argued that the
Constitution does not apply to the Klan, others questioned those
attorneys' memory and sense of history. And especially heartening for
Griffin is the strong support he has received from persons responsible for
training African American lawyers of the future, among them the dean of
Howard University Law School.
As for the black people he encounters day to day, Griffin said
"Walking through airports, walking down the streets,
shopping in the stores, regular black folks, not carrying
any notion or burden of the mantle of leadership, stop
me, smile and extend a hand and express verbal support
.... Maybe this is because the First Amendment affects
those who are poor, disenfranchised and powerless to a
greater extent than those of us who are more fortunate,
comfortable and whose everyday activities are not
threatened by governmental restraint."
Finally, Griffin said that whatever words his defense of a Klansman's
rights has brought forth from African Americans -- whether disdain, the
feeling that he has displayed courage or "that I have lost my mind" -- all
of the responses are consistent with the intent of those who framed the
First Amendment. "The First Amendment," he said, "makes us laugh, scream,
cry, scratch our heads at the wonderful contradictions -- it crosses
color, class and racial lines."
As the ACLU knows only too well, the work of any person involved in
defending the Bill of Rights has a good chance of becoming the center of
controversy, no matter what his or her ethnic or racial identity. So be
it. Without our noticing it or expecting it, freedoms hard won can slip
away unless we continue the fight for their preservation on every front.
Photo Caption: He heard duty call
Anthony P. Griffin, in cooperation with the ACLU of Texas, is
defending Michael Lowe, Grand Dragon of the Texas Knights of the Ku Klux
Klan, against a lawsuit brought by the Texas Commission on Human Rights
to force public disclosure of the Klan's membership lists and financial
records. Griffin and the ACLU argue that since the Klan is a private
group, its records are protected from disclosure under a 1958 Supreme
Court decision that barred the state of Alabama's access to the
membership files of the NAACP. Though vilified for representing the Klan
by some, including the Texas NAACP, Griffin has also received broad
support from individuals of all colors, as well as from civil liberties
and civil rights groups.
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