“They were written on paper, not on stone.”
We spoke with Hasan Jeffries, professor of Civil Rights & Black Power history, author, and podcast host, for the sixth installment of our First Amendment interview series, One on 1.
Hasan talks to us about how speaking up has shaped our culture, how the First Amendment is critical when thinking about the Black experience, and why “freedom for the thought that we hate” is most important.
Hasan Jeffries: We have to be ever vigilant because there is no guarantee that they will be there tomorrow. They were written on paper, not on stone.
Christian Cotz: Hi, I’m Christian Cotz, CEO of the First Amendment Museum. Today I’m joined by Hasan Kwame Jefferies who is an Associate Professor of History at The Ohio State University where he’s taught graduate and undergraduate seminars on the Civil Rights and Black Power movements and surveys in African American and American history.
He’s the author of “Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt.” Hasan also hosts the podcast Teaching Hard History: American Slavery, and you really need to check out Hasan’s Ted Talk, “Confronting Hard History.” Thanks for being here with us today my friend.
Hasan Jeffries: It’s great to be with you.
Christian Cotz: Why do you think the First Amendment is important?
Hasan Jeffries: It’s the starting point for all that we do as thinkers. It’s not just sort of a right to say something, it’s the right to say what you think, to say what you believe, to say what you feel.
The dissemination of ideas without fear of not accountability but of persecution. And that is absolutely essential for the purpose of making a better society.
Christian Cotz: So in your work, in studying Civil Rights and African American history, how does the First Amendment intersect, either with that history, or with your daily personal, professional life?
Hasan Jeffries: Well it’s critical when thinking about the black experience, because in many ways, for the majority of the African American journey, African Americans have been denied these critical First Amendment rights. The right to gather and critique government, the right to assemble.
All of these things really become wrapped up in what African Americans have been not only experiencing but also have been organizing their lives and communities around.
So part of what African Americans have always done is they have used the rhetoric but also the laws of the nation, that which is on the books, to point out the discrepancies and what has been denied them, and then to say, “Hey, you can’t proclaim this to be true and then deny it to us.”
Christian Cotz: Do you think our society understands or recognizes their First Amendment rights?
Hasan Jeffries: I would like to say that we have a better understanding than we actually do. As citizens we need to learn more, we need to look more closely, we need to better understand.
I think one of the beautiful things about the way the First Amendment has been practiced is that it creates a culture of free expression, right, that says, yes the government ought not, cannot interfere. But in the public square, we should also give each other latitude.
And when I think about the First Amendment, I absolutely think about it in the sort of narrow legal terms of limits on government, but I also think what’s so powerful about it and why it has resonated and made America so unique is that it has bled over into the culture. It’s part of the way we think about speech and what we can say and our levels of tolerance for opinions that differ than our own.
Christian Cotz: I just wonder if you had any reflections on the similarities or differences between the periods that you study historically and the things that you’re seeing in the moment?
Hasan Jeffries: Well you know, I mean the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances, we think about this last summer and the summer of protest on the part of people rallying under the banner of Black Lives Matter, I mean, that is exactly what it is.
But it’s a scale, right? Like not all protests are equal but it’s all protected, right, and I think that in the end, is really what is most important. One of the most difficult things to do is to defend the right of someone to share an opinion, to petition, to protest, to assemble, who you disagree with. But it is important to do that so that the people you do agree with can have those same rights. That’s unique, not just in America but in kind of human history.
And I think one of the things that we have also seen is how fragile those rights actually are. I mean, they’re as permanent as we make them to be, but they can be eroded. They were written on paper, not on stone.
Christian Cotz: If you could wish the people of the United States one thing, you know, about their First Amendment rights, what would that be?
Hasan Jeffries: I think speak up. But in the ideal world, if we would all just sort of respect the speech of others but do it in a way that is like, this is about honesty, this is about truth, this is about the free exchange of ideas, I think we would be in a better place not just politically in our political discourse, but I think we will be in a better space socially, in terms of how we interact with one another.
Thanks for joining us today, it’s always great to talk to you. Everybody out there who’s listening, thanks for tuning in, and stay tuned. We’ll have more One on 1 in the future. We’ll be back.