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Cook column: Free speech, right words and history

The Rev. Kris Mares recalled playing with a black friend as a child. She felt so at ease and comforted, Mares told the friend that she reminded her of Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Butterworth.

The audience at the Hood Seminary community forum cringed. As Mares said her young friend quickly explained, that was not the right thing to say.

Mares’ childhood mistake is obvious to us now. But as the dialogue between whites and blacks moves forward in Salisbury, don’t be surprised if whites hang back a little. We don’t always know where the minefields are.

Last year was not the first time the residents of the predominantly black West End clamored for more law enforcement in their neighborhood and a meeting with the Salisbury police chief. Many of the same people sought a conversation in 1998 with then-Chief Jeff Jacobs. The chief obliged, but the conversation did not go well, and a frustrated Jacobs called members of the West End Community Organization “you people.” Jacobs was soon gone.

Sometimes, like Mares as a child, we don’t know better. Sometimes, as with Jacobs, the wrong words come out. And sometimes people don’t care if they offend someone; in fact, they rather like it.

Where is the line between strong language,  political incorrectness, insensitivity and plain rudeness?

Wherever it was, the line seems to be moving this summer under the hand — or mouth — of Donald Trump.

People were quick to forgive and even chime in on Trump’s broadsides about Mexican immigrants. He’s just saying what everyone wishes they could say, the line went.

It took a couple of seconds longer to smooth over his put down of a heroic former POW, Sen. John McCain — “I like people who don’t get captured,” Trump said.

Now the Donald has struck out at Megyn Kelly of Fox News for asking about his belittling language toward women — calling some “fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.”

During the debate, Trump brushed that off as time-consuming political correctness, and later he took a different tack. Maybe Trump meant to say Kelly was coming after him with  something like fire in her eyes, but he chose instead to say it was blood, and that it might be coming from “wherever.”

At least half of Trump’s supporters may let that one go, too.

The Trump style brings to mind an old lawyer’s saying: “If you have the facts on your side, pound the facts. If you have the law on your side, pound the law. If you have neither on your side, pound the table.”

How long will Trump get away with pounding the table with insults before supporters start questioning his facts?

A long procession of trucks and motorcycles wound through town last weekend waving Confederate flags. They called it a Confederate Pride Ride.

They fear their right to freedom of speech — to wave whatever flag they want — is under attack. The removal of the flag from the S.C. Capitol grounds and from some store shelves has riled a segment of the population. So they wave the Rebel flag all the more.

As one black man, Wilson  Cherry, said at the Hood forum, go ahead, wave the Confederate flag. “I won’t bother you.”

Old times here are not forgotten.

The people who like to talk about Southern heritage and pride — as symbolized by the Confederate flag — have not been showing up at multiracial prayer vigils, community forums or peace circles to share their thoughts. That may be just as well.

Activists who want to speak truth to power need the ear of people who educate and legislate, bosses who hire and fire, and authorities who arrest and prosecute. That’s just the beginning.

One of President Lyndon Johnson’s daughters explained during an interview recently why her father pushed so hard for the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965 — “not just to be on the right side of history, but to be right,” Luci Baines Johnson said.

Saying the right words is not as important as doing the right thing.

Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.

 

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