Maurice Isserman: Why Ward Churchill Deserves to Be Heard Despite His Statements

Roundup: Historians' Take

Maurice Isserman, in the Chronicle of Higher Education (2-9-05):

[Maurice Isserman is a professor of history and chairman of the American-studies program at Hamilton College. His most recent book is The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington (PublicAffairs, 2000). Another version of this article appeared in the Hamilton student newspaper, The Hamilton Spectator. ]

Over the past several months, Hamilton College, the small liberal-arts institution in upstate New York where I teach history, has been the site of some of the most heavily publicized conflicts ever fought in the history of American higher education to define the limits of acceptable speech on a college campus.

The most recent turmoil began when some faculty members invited Ward Churchill, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, to give a talk this month on Native American issues. Churchill had spoken on many campuses without controversy, but several weeks before his scheduled appearance at Hamilton some previously obscure remarks he made in the fall of 2001 came to light. Those included the statement that the victims of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center were "little Eichmanns," who, Churchill seemed to imply, deserved their fate....

Perhaps it seems self-evident that former felons and people with outrageous opinions should not be welcome at college campuses. But what do we do then about Malcolm X?

Every spring one of the books I assign to students enrolled in my introductory American-studies course is The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a book published shortly after its author's assassination, in 1965. In many ways a deeply flawed man, Malcolm X struggled mightily to overcome his shortcomings and left a vivid record of that struggle in his autobiography. He was born in poverty and obscurity in 1925 as Malcolm Little, and, by the time he was the age of a first-year Hamilton College student, he had become a pimp, a thief, a drug dealer, and an addict.

Convicted of theft at the age of 21, he underwent a jailhouse religious conversion and emerged from prison, in 1952, with a new name and identity. As Malcolm X he would rise to national prominence as a leading spokesman for the Nation of Islam, also known as the Black Muslims.

Over the next decade, following the teachings of the Nation of Islam's leader, Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm argued that white Americans were descendants of a misbegotten race spawned by a mad scientist in ancient times, destined to oppress and exploit the colored peoples of the world until overthrown in a violent revolution. Not surprisingly, he proved a polarizing figure to both black and white Americans. He attacked the leaders of the mainstream civil-rights movement, including Martin Luther King Jr., for supposedly currying white favor at the expense of black freedom. And when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Malcolm called his death a "case of chickens coming home to roost" -- suggesting that in some way Kennedy, or the nation he led, had it coming.

By the time of his own assassination, 40 years ago this month, Malcolm had left the Nation of Islam and repudiated many of its teachings; he no longer regarded all white people as devils and had softened his criticisms of King. His autobiography, nonetheless, can still be read as a call for armed revolution, and contains passages that can only be interpreted as misogynistic and anti-Semitic.

Yet for all its troubling aspects, The Autobiography of Malcolm X is today widely recognized as a great American memoir. Like another book I assign my students every year, Benjamin Franklin's autobiography, Malcolm's autobiography explores in original and provocative ways questions of sin, repentance, and redemption. Malcolm, like Franklin, reveals himself as a man engaged in the classic American quest for individual self-definition.

Sometimes as I prepare for class I think how wonderful it would be if I had the power to resurrect an author or historical figure from the past and bring him or her before my students for a question-and-answer session. But if I could bring Malcolm back to life, would people object if he came to talk to my class?

I suspect not. Fame and the passage of time have made him an icon of self-respect and self-help, sanitizing him in ways that he would be the first to find astounding. Americans tend to admire advocates of unpopular causes as long as they are many decades gone, and the rough edges no longer so visible. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we celebrated at Hamilton just as the Ward Churchill controversy began to heat up, is a good example. We remember King as an apostle of racial harmony and nonviolent protest; we tend to forget that he was also an outspoken critic of the war in Vietnam and economic inequality, and that he was despised and persecuted by the FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. ...

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More Comments:

emily beale - 3/18/2005

I don't know that King was despised and persecuted by Hoover. That's fairly dramatic. Maybe he had him assasinated too. King was being monitored by the government for espousing Communist views. This monitering had the approval of many in the government for this reason. Communism was considered a threat to our form of government. It should still be considered so.

About Malcolm: I'm surprised that a historian allows himself this much sentimentality. Remember, distance is beauty. Remember this when you think about Van Gogh dying a pauper having sold not one painting in his lifetime, as you witness "Irises" being auctioned at Sotheby's to a global audience of bidders and selling for millions of dollars.

emily beale - 3/17/2005

Dear Maurice, Malcolm X was a lot of things, but he was not a fraud. If you ARE a historian, you should have been helping a couple other professors at Hamilton - the heroes of the story - to do a little fact-checking.

John H. Lederer - 2/26/2005

I just don't see why I should have to pay for him to speak.

Walter Bender - 2/9/2005

"It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong."
"Every man is guilty of all the good he didn't do. "
"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. "
Voltaire (1694 - 1778)

Governor Owens:

You bring shame on the State of Colorado by resorting to intimidation in the face of reasoned dissent. Regardless of your opinion of Churchill's views, it is NOT your prerogative to exploit your status and position to punish anyone for expressing opinions.

I've read Churchill's offerings. They are blunt, provocative and they explore topics that most people find disturbing. Yet Churchill's opinions echo those of many others. Notably, Noam Chomsky, Thomas Frank, and that notorious villain, Michael Moore have expressed similar views.

The views? The US policy of hegemony has brought death and destruction to many other countries. The motive for these imperialistic behaviors is not noble intervention on behalf of oppressed populations. As it was during the earlier years of Hussein’s regime in Iraq, we are typically the force that empowers and supports oppressors, who then act out our policies on our behalf. Our interests are frequently economic and political - not humanitarian.

Churchill, like many others, merely expresses his opinions about these facts. His opinion is simple. So long as we forcibly impose our national will on weaker countries to feed our base interests, we invite retaliation. That retaliation will focus on our most strategically vulnerable assets...military and financial targets.

Don't ask Churchill how he could dare to suggest that other societies in this world might object to our oppression and try to do something about it. Ask instead how the CIA could have been stupid enough to place important facilities in the World Trade Center, turning it into a military target. Ask instead how headquarters for the economic engine benefiting from this exploitation could be based in the heart of one of the United States' most densely populated cities.

Don't blame Churchill for pointing out that our decades-long aggressive, abusive national policies have invited tragedy into our homeland. Blame instead those who have ignored their part in this exploitation, embedded themselves in our midst – placing us all at risk, and then would claim the badge of victim when they become the targets of another culture’s attempt to be free of our abuse.

Regardless of how outrageous Churchill’s views may be in your eyes, yours are more radical. You would trample our First Amendment rights by subjecting someone who speaks-out to retaliatory behavior. You would strangle the voice of a university professor by unjustly threatening his livelihood for expressing an opinion. You would stifle dissent by exerting your considerable influence to see to it that Churchill is ousted from his position, because he dared to speak. Are all employees of state agencies subject to similar prohibitions? Would, for example, a Governor or State Senator who calls for the de facto suspension of the Bill of Rights be subjected to similar sanctions? Is it sedition to incite the dismantling of the Constitution?

Shame on you, Governor. And shame on every public official who would squelch dissent with threats and intimidation. Are you afraid of words? Voltaire’s words should weigh heavily on your conscience.

Walter Bender
Aurora, CO