Martin Luther King on the First Amendment

The fall 2015 semester saw two overlapping student movements: one for intellectual and emotional safety and one for racial justice. The movement for safety insisted that colleges should be "safe spaces" where students are protected from "microaggressions" and can count on "trigger warnings" about anything in the curriculum they might find traumatic.

The movement for racial justice involved a variety of concerns and goals at colleges and universities across the country. In some cases, overlapping with the safety movement, this included demands for censoring and punishing racist speech.

Is free speech antithetical to racial justice? Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been surprised at the suggestion that the pursuit of racial justice requires censorship. On the contrary, he understood as well as anyone that the First Amendment was crucial to the civil rights movement.

King spoke passionately in support of the First Amendment on April 3, 1968, the day before his assassination, in what turned out to be his final speech. In Memphis to support a sanitation workers strike, he proclaimed:

Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee -- the cry is always the same: "We want to be free."

This, he continued, was the cry of people "determined to gain our rightful place in God's world."

And that's all this whole thing is about. We aren't engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody. We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people. We are saying ... that we are God's children, we don't have to live like we are forced to live.

But the struggle for freedom and justice faced resistance, including an injunction, and this is where the First Amendment came into play:

Now about injunctions: We have an injunction and we're going into court tomorrow morning to fight this illegal, unconstitutional injunction. All we say to America is, "Be true to what you said on paper."

If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand some of these illegal injunctions. Maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn't committed themselves to that over there.

But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.

And so just as I say, we aren't going to let dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren't going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on.

The speech moved to other topics, coming finally to its famous conclusion:

And then I got into Memphis. And some began to ... talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!

And so I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

King's vision of the Promised Land included equal rights for all, and those rights included freedoms of belief, speech, press, assembly, and protest. First Amendment rights, in his view, were crucial for reaching this land long promised, and part of what makes it the Promised Land.

The Promised Land, then, is not simply a "safe space." Social justice is not achieved by eliminating "microaggressions" or requiring "trigger warnings." Student activists, whatever their cause, should recognize and insist on intellectual freedom for all.