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

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. ...