Meeting the Enemy

Colleges shouldn’t deem certain speech to be off-limits, writes Walter M. Kimbrough.

October 17, 2017
 
 
iStock/serazetdinov

For the past year, colleges and universities have found themselves wrestling with a philosophical issue: speech. Leaders have had to decide who gets to speak, when, why and, more recently, at what cost. This issue has moved to the front pages recently as a new wave of controversial speakers have heightened the tensions built from a contentious presidential campaign. Speakers in most years who would not be controversial for events like commencement are causing high-profile protests on days that should be sacred celebrations.

Presidents find themselves attempting to manage all their constituencies, plus a 24-7 news cycle where Twitter shares news before they even know what has happened. But in the midst of this current state of tension where the next controversial speaker might just show up on campus, maybe it is time for presidents and boards to stop, reflect and answer a couple of questions: Who are we and what do we believe? As someone who experienced an unwelcome visitor to campus, I had a chance to not only practice what I believe, but to reflect on why I believe it and who inspired my belief.

He was once known as Harold Vann.

Harold Vann graduated from high school in Houston in 1966. He was active in the United Methodist Church and chose Dillard University, a Methodist institution, for college. Vann was quickly well-known on the campus. He pledged Omega Psi Phi fraternity in the fall of 1967, his sophomore year, in a pledge class known as “the Funky 15.” In addition, he was a member of the debate team.

Warren Jones, a Dillard alumnus and former professor, shared with me that Vann, a philosophy and religion major, “engaged any and all who would listen in dialogue, discussion and debate on religion, politics and the ‘Black Condition’ in America.” Freedom rider and alumnus David Dennis recalled Vann as being complicated and committed, controversial and outspoken.

In the fall of 1969, a young minister from the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan, spoke at Dillard. Embracing a philosophy of an aesthetic spirit led by its first permanent president, William Stuart Nelson, the university sought to be a place for cultural enlightenment and participation. So even a relatively unknown Farrakhan was given a platform. In fact, not long after that, another young and not yet well-known figure also spoke on campus: David Duke.

Farrakhan’s visit impacted the deeply religious Vann, and in 1970 he joined the Nation of Islam. Jones recalled how Vann's meager wardrobe began to transform with a number of suits that he wore daily. Vann finished three years at Dillard before leaving to be engaged in the work of the Nation full-time. (He ultimately graduated from Pepperdine University.) Mentored by Farrakhan, he quickly rose up the ranks, including becoming a western regional minister, and by the early 1980s he was the national spokesman and trusted aide to Farrakhan. After several iterations, he was given a name that became famous.

Khalid Abdul Muhammad.

Muhammad began to develop a national following for his gifted oratory. But he did not become a household name until he gave a speech at Kean College in 1993. By that time he was known for anti-Semitic and homophobic rhetoric, as well as embracing a separatist doctrine for blacks. His Kean speech took no prisoners -- it was more inflammatory than any of the rhetoric of today’s most controversial campus speakers.

Muhammad called the pope a “no-good cracker” and suggested that “somebody needs to raise up that dress up and see what’s really under there.” He mocked the former FBI director, calling him “Gay Edgar Hoover,” and said that local Jews were afraid to come to his speech to debate him. He called out black male students who the women students said were dating white women, while also wearing the popular “X” paraphernalia related to the movie Malcolm X. Relatedly, he attacked that film's director, Spike Lee, whom he called “Spook Lee … a pigeon-toed Jiminy Cricket,” questioning how he could take $30 million from a white Jew to make the film.

During the question and answer, in graphic detail, Muhammad offered a rationale for murdering white South Africans, including babies, women, the handicapped and gays. While not mentioned in most of the coverage, the transcript was shared and became part of a U.S. House of Representatives resolution overwhelmingly condemning the speech. The Senate’s resolution passed with a 97 to 0 vote, and the Congressional Black Caucus publicly distanced itself from the Nation of Islam. Eventually, Farrakhan repudiated the speech’s manner but not its “truths.”

A Formative Campus Incident

The Kean speech became national news, debated for months. Campuses worried that Muhammad might come their way, generating national press and controversy that most could do without.

Enter Emory University.

I was the first black coordinator of Greek life when I started there in 1992, one of a few black men in administrative roles on the campus. With so few of us, black students throughout the institution, not just those involved in Greek life, engaged me on a daily basis. I knew it was important to support their activities as a member of the community.

Khalid Muhammad was scheduled to speak at Emory in February 1994, months after Kean. The administration placed pressure on the Black Student Alliance (BSA) and the Black Law Students Association (BLSA) to cancel the speech. By Feb. 1, the BLSA had withdrawn its request from the student government association for funding to bring Muhammad to campus. A week later, the BSA had not confirmed that the invitation had been rescinded, leading to speculation that it would take place. But without the funding, the event did not occur.

The tension set off an early-morning protest, around 6 a.m., when members of the BSA marched through campus and residence halls chanting, “No justice! No sleep!” The protest followed a late-night confrontation with members of the student newspaper, The Emory Wheel, which was continuing coverage of the Muhammad invitation.

The students felt betrayed. They believed, as Emory students, they had a right to bring in a speaker of their choosing. And the protest -- which led to meetings with the interim president, vice president for campus life, director of black studies and director of minority affairs that afternoon -- became an opportunity for students to share concerns we hear today from black students about safety, feelings of marginalization and the lack of diversity in the student body, faculty and administration.

But with the controversy came a great deal of debate. A range of perspectives were shared, but the editorial board of the student paper, while saying Muhammad should not be paid using student government funds, argued that he should be invited to speak. The editors wrote, “One of the many purposes of a college environment is to present alternative points of view … it is consistent with the commitment of the university environment to pursue freedom of speech.”

The faculty-staff paper, The Emory Report, weighed in as well. Robert Franklin, who later became president of Morehouse College, wrote, “Perhaps it is the obligation of a university, more than other social institutions, to create the appropriate forum wherein claims can be heard, critically examined and rebutted. Just because people such as Rush Limbaugh, David Duke or Khalid Muhammad do not occupy an Emory podium does not mean that they do not enjoy significant loyalty in the Emory community.”

Politics professor Harvey Klehr wrote, “To give the university a veto power over speakers would give it a power of censorship that is incompatible with the principles of free speech and free inquiry upon which an academic institution is based.”

University chaplain Susan Henry-Crowe shared, “The free exchange of ideas around these issues must take place in the university in order to inform moral thinking in the marketplace, seats of government, religious centers and the home … As the chaplain, had Mr. Muhammad come to Emory, I would have denounced and repudiated his appearance. But should certain speakers be allowed to come? Painfully, but probably, yes.”

The BSA did not give up and arranged for Muhammad to speak in April. While Muhammad did speak that weekend at a local church to an assembly of over 2,000 people, the university canceled his appearance, citing safety concerns. (The college event known as Freaknik was occurring that weekend, creating an opportunity for a huge crowd.) Another widely publicized Muhammad speech that made national newspapers for several days also influenced the decision. But this time it was not at a predominantly white university. This time it was Howard University.

The Power of Debate

The discussions, along with the atmosphere on the campus, profoundly impacted me, as a new professional. I felt for the black students who struggled with a decision they saw as arbitrary. I felt the tension, especially working with a diverse fraternity and sorority community that included several prominent Jewish groups. The discussions and the articles in the college newspapers all played a role in my ideology about free speech. The poignant words of Franklin and Klehr and Reverend Henry-Crowe, in particular, still ring true for me today -- not as an entry-level Greek life coordinator but as a university president.

Simply stated, we can’t say we promote critical thinking when we deem certain ideas to be off-limits.

That’s the philosophy that caused me, as president of Philander Smith College, to invite not only Michael Eric Dyson, Melissa Harris Perry, Al Sharpton and Tim Wise but also Ann Coulter, Ward Connerly, Mary Matalin and Charles Murray for my “Bless the Mic” lecture series. This same philosophy has meant inviting Iyanla Vanzant, Father Michael Pfleger, Cornel West and Ben Crump as well as Rich Lowry and Jason Riley, Karrine Steffans and Luther “Uncle Luke” Campbell, for my “Brain Food” lecture series at Dillard.

And, yes, it is the same philosophy that would not allow me to back out of hosting a U.S. Senate debate just because one of the five participants, David Duke, was only looking for 15 additional minutes of fame. (Remember, he spoke at Dillard in the early 1970s during his rise to infamy.) Yes, lots of people angry were with me, and some are still upset. But as one of my former Philander students, a national journalist today, tweeted, if Duke could undo at Philander Smith in one hour what we have been building for over 100 years, we should close.

And it is an ideology I share with a former Dillard student who rose to prominence in the Nation of Islam and gave controversial speeches. In his Kean speech, Khalid Muhammad called the professors at Kean the best minds in the city but criticized them for being cowards, saying, “Every wise leader has to meet with the enemy.”

Continuing, Muhammad argued, “This is supposed to be an institution of academics. This is supposed to be an institution where you don’t mind the students being exposed to various schools of thought. The professors should be in here right now. If I’m lying, they should be challenging me on everything.”

Harold Vann embraced the Dillard philosophy. Khalid Muhammad provided a chance to practice it.

My job is to protect it.

Bio

Walter M. Kimbrough is the seventh president of Dillard University and in his 13th year as a college president. He has spent most of his career as a student affairs practitioner.

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