Peter Pringle's America: Black defender of the Klan

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THE American Bill of Rights creates some strange bedfellows. A black lawyer named Anthony Griffin continues to cause a stir because he is defending the Ku Klux Klan. Given that the Klan's historic mission is to terrorise and subjugate blacks, many are wondering why on earth Mr Griffin, who is an ardent opponent of everything that the Klan members stand for, would bother to defend them.

The issue is this. The state of Texas is trying to force the Klan to make public a list of its members who are determined to stop blacks moving into mostly white public housing projects. Mr Griffin is defending the Klan's right to withhold the names on the basis of the First Amendment to the Constitution that guarantees freedom of expression and organisation.

The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, America's oldest and largest civil rights organisation, is outraged by Mr Griffin's action and has summarily dismissed him as general counsel to the Texas chapter of the NAACP, a post he had held for two years, citing a 'conflict of interest'. Since the NAACP works constantly against the Klan, Mr Griffin could not be on both sides of the fence at once, association leaders decreed.

Mr Griffin, 49, has mounted an eloquent defence of his actions, in so doing adding his name to the growing list of blacks who, in various ways, are rejecting the limited strategies of the Old Guard of African-American leaders. Wherever you look, there are convulsions in black politics.

Jesse Jackson has recently challenged the self-imposed code of silence among young blacks that protects the culture of violence. While other black leaders pretended - and some preached - that responsibility lay with the white-controlled media or the police, Mr Jackson has been telling black teenagers it is their fight; he urged them to sign a pledge card that they would tell the police if they saw other blacks with guns or drugs. Ratting on comrades could be good, he said.

On another front, the New York elections have stirred black leaders, including Mr Jackson, to intensify their drive to form a new party. More than 90 per cent of blacks voted for New York's Democratic black mayor, David Dinkins, and overwhelmingly supported his two white running mates seeking second positions in city government. Mr Dinkins was defeated, but the running mates were elected, sending blacks a gloomy message: blacks will support white Democrats, but white Democrats will not necessarily support blacks.

Fed up, Mr Jackson and other black leaders speak of giving up on the Democratic Party, which the majority of blacks have supported since they won the right to vote. They talk of forming a new party in time for the 1996 presidential elections.

The temptation for Mr Jackson is to try and revive his own Rainbow Coalition which was formed to advance all minority interests - and especially his own - but the danger is that a new party would dilute the political strength already gained by African-Americans. They could end up isolated on the outside throwing rocks, trying to get in. A frustrated few might throw bombs.

In this context the thoughtful, soft-spoken arguments of Mr Griffin, acknowledging the rights under the Constitution of even white supremacists to organise without government snooping, are a mature step that can only reflect well on the new generation of black professionals.

Mr Griffin recalls his school days in a segregated community in Texas and the words of the Pledge of Allegiance: '. . . with liberty and justice for all'. He began to listen to Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael, Dick Gregory and Angela Davis. And he read about Dred Scott, the slave who sued for his freedom after his master had moved him from the slave state of Missouri to the free state of Illinois, and then back to Missouri. An even application of constitutional doctrine would make him free, he claimed, but the US Supreme Court of the day justified the enslavement by proclaiming the black man had no rights that the white man must respect.

As readily as the next person, Mr Griffin acknowledges that the Klan is a hate group that has terrorised the black community. But he insists that the Klan, the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, 'or you and your garden party' all have a right to assemble, organise and advocate their respective positions, no matter how odious they might be. When the American Civil Liberties Union office in Texas called and asked if he would take the Klan case, he accepted. 'The failure to protect those we hate takes away my protection,' he says.

He notes that the NAACP in the late Fifties fought to retain its membership list in Alabama, and the Supreme Court upheld its right under the First Amendment. As recently as 1982, the NAACP fought to protect its members' right to boycott, shout, protest and demonstrate outside a Mississippi hardware company that traded only with white-run businesses. Again, the Supreme Court upheld the NAACP's right. 'Some people contend there is a difference in the Klan and the NAACP. Yes and no,' says Mr Griffin.

One appalled black lawyer asked whether the constitutional principles Mr Griffin asserts in the protection of the Klan's membership list would ever apply equally to the membership lists of a black group that advocated terrorism against whites. Obviously not, but then that is a measure of how far the integration of American society has to go before African-Americans no longer feel betrayed by a thinly disguised racist vote, or a blatant civil rights violation.