Lt. Colonel Wesley Brown, the first black graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy (Class of 1949) died last month. Even many Fox News affiliates took note of his story.
A handful of black students had enrolled at the Academy before, but quit in the face of intense race-based hatred and hazing. Brown, a member of the entering class of 1945, barely made it. Most white cadets refused to sit next to him in the cafeteria or classroom. He was barred from joining the choir and admitted to a biographer years later that not a day went by during his stay at Annapolis that he didn't think about quitting. But with the World War II just ended, attitudes about discrimination were changing. It was hard to argue that Hitler was a monster if a brand of racism virtually indistinguishable from Nazi ideology was going to continue to thrive in this country. Luckily, a few cadets (including Jimmy Carter) encouraged Brown to “hang in there” and he did and went on to make a career of the Navy.
More about Brown in a moment; but for now it’s interesting to consider his story in light of recent polls that show 40% of Americans identify themselves as “conservative,” outnumbering liberals 2-1. Here in Cincinnati it can feel like it’s closer to 10-1.
Many of my friends tell me they’re conservative. I tell them I’m liberal. What’s odd is that they sometimes tell me I’m not.
I say I am and say I can prove it. They say I’m not and walk away feeling a little too smug in their beliefs. They don’t believe in global warming nor in evolution. They don’t gasp when Donald Trump and Michele Bachmann put themselves forward as serious contenders for the Republican presidential nomination. They don’t notice that Sarah Palin is an intellectual lightweight or that Glenn Beck often sounds nutty. They believe in the Bible, though, and really, really, really believe in the Founding Fathers and don’t think there has been a good political idea hatched out of anyone’s head since 1787.
The Brown story makes you wonder if Americans still understand what labels like “liberal” and “conservative” mean. A “conservative” has always been someone who wants to keep society as it is. A liberal has always been a person who wants to see society change and improve. Both views have their strengths. Yet, for two decades, the loudest voices on the far-right, people like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter and the crew at Fox News, have done everything they could to turn the word “liberal” into a pejorative.
It might help all good Americans, then, liberal and conservative, to consider a few examples and explain how liberals really think and we’ll circle back to Brown before we finish.
Recently, the University of Michigan Law School and the Northwestern University School of Law compiled a database of all individuals wrongly convicted of serious crimes in this country and later exonerated, starting in 1989. Records show that more than 2,000 men and women have been unjustly convicted of very serious crimes, including rape and murder. Many have been freed only as a result of improvements in the use of DNA evidence, which has often conclusively established their innocence.
The database, however, looked at only 873 individuals (not surprisingly, half were black), for whom the best records existed. Collectively, they spent 10,000 years in prison for crimes they did not commit.
One hundred and one innocent people were facing death sentences.
If you’re a liberal you consider this a travesty. You believe courts must do a better job of insuring that innocent people are not sent to prison. You might also oppose the death penalty, though not all liberals do.
Last September, when Rick Perry defended the 234 executions carried out in Texas during his time as governor, and said he wasn’t worried about mistakes, because his state had such a fine justice system, you had a sinking feeling. You knew, for instance, that the State of Illinois admitted it condemned at least 13 innocent men to death in years following the decision by the United States Supreme Court to reinstitute the penalty in 1977.
Go back farther and you can see plenty of reasons to be “liberal.” Do you believe a defendant on trial for murder should have legal counsel if he cannot afford it? You’re a liberal if you do because the Founding Fathers never thought to address that issue and the U. S. Supreme Court had to determine that the answer was “yes” in a series of decisions in the 1930s and 40s.
What about a defendant on trial for armed robbery? Should that individual have a lawyer if he can’t afford one? Or should he defend himself, try to stay out of jail for five or six years, relying only on his own native wit? He might be innocent, after all. If you say “he deserves a lawyer,” click your ruby slippers together and repeat three times, “There's no place so perfect for conservatives as the past” and be transported back to 1963. Up until then defendants on trial in non-capital felony cases had no lawyers unless they could pay for them.
If you think that’s wrong and claim you’re conservative, it’s time to come out of the closet.
You, madam or sir, are a flaming liberal!
What about the whole matter of Brown and the idea that all Americans deserve equal treatment? Should Wesley Brown have been allowed to enroll at the U. S. Naval Academy in the first place? Should Herman Cain be allowed to run for higher office? Should Colin Powell be a general? Should black and white soldiers fighting today in Afghanistan serve in integrated military units? They couldn’t until President Harry Truman took a liberal stance and ordered U. S. armed forces to eliminate the color line in 1948. At the time, Strom Thurmond, U. S. senator from South Carolina, and a red, white and blue conservative till the day he died in 2003, called the new policy “un-American.”
He was opposed to race-mixing and warned: “There’s not enough troops in the Army to break down segregation and admit the Negro into our homes, our eating places, our swimming pools and our theaters.” Good old Strom Thurmond! Served 48 years in the Senate. Ran in 1948 as the Dixiecrat candidate for president on an anti-integration platform. Switched to the Republican Party sixteen years later because Barry Goldwater, the conservative candidate for president, opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
A conservative, good and true, was Senator Thurmond.
Keep blacks out of the swimming pools, the schools (including Annapolis), and, for sure, voting booths. Not necessarily your bedroom though. In 2003 after seventy-eight years of secrets and silence, it was revealed that Strom Thurmond had fathered a child by his family’s black teenage maid in 1925. Down South they call that miscegenation.
And Thurmond was against it.
You’d think our political opponents on the right might see the irony and be a bit more humble. “Conservatism,” after all, has often meant standing directly in the path of human advancement. In 1521 it meant believing it was acceptable to burn church critics at the stake. In 1611, when the King James Bible was published, you supported King James when he claimed to rule by divine right. In 1692, in Salem, Massachusetts, conservatives called it justice to hang men and women for witchcraft, and no defense lawyers required. In 1775 you considered George Washington and all those who would later become the Founding Fathers traitors. In 1861 you stood with the slave owners. In 1920 you predicted disaster if women voted and said it would lead to increases in the divorce rate.
In 1967, like Senator Thurmond, you opposed interracial marriage. So you knew it was a dark day in American history when a few “activist” judges on the United States Supreme Court stepped in that summer and voted 9-0 in favor of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple from Virginia. The court ruled that if two people loved each other they could marry. (Police officers had invaded the Loving’s home at night, had apprehended the criminals in their own bed, with a wedding certificate from another state affixed to the bedroom wall). For decades the laws of the State of Virginia had held that a racially mixed marriage was a felony (again: no lawyer needed at trial if you couldn’t pay for one yourself), and conservatives heartily approved, just as they imagined the Founding Fathers must have intended. So: you’re a true conservative if you believe the government should be able to tell people who they can and cannot marry. And you’re a liberal if you believe marriage between races is acceptable.
Rupert Murdoch, owner of the most conservative TV network on the face of the planet? Why that curmudgeon is a liberal! Divorced twice. Old white fellow. Married to a woman of Chinese extraction.
Conservatives used to call that miscegenation.