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To Really Refute Thomas, Let Him Speak

Free speech: The National Bar Assn. considers rescinding an invitation to the justice.

June 05, 1998|KAREN GRIGSBY BATES | Karen Grigsby Bates is a regular contributor to this page

In my community, we call it home training. In others, it's referred to as good manners. Whatever you choose to call it, we were inculcated early on with some basics that don't change over the years: If you're invited to something and you accept, then you show up, unless you call and explain that an emergency (a real one) is preventing you from coming. If, for some reason, you need to bring someone with you, you call first and get the host's permission. And if you invite someone to an affair you're holding, you don't turn around and uninvite him when you change your mind about having him there.

The National Bar Assn. was founded in 1925, when the American Bar Assn. was rude enough to refuse black lawyers membership in their organization. (That policy has since been corrected, and many black attorneys belong to both.) Apparently the National Bar Assn. forgot its home training a few weeks ago. That's when the chair of its judicial council, Judge Bernette Johnson of the Louisiana Supreme Court, decided to invite Thomas to address the group at its annual convention in Memphis next month. It seems that Johnson extended the invitation without checking with her 25 fellow board members of the NBA's judicial council, many of whom felt she had made an end run around them. So a campaign has begun to rescind the invitation.

Thomas is no stranger to this kind of hospitality. Several times over the past few years, the man who is one of the high court's most conservative members and its only black member has been asked to address a group only to have the invitation withdrawn (or to withdraw himself) when the controversy over his presence grew too great. Those who were protesting Thomas' presence considered themselves as having won a victory, but I wonder.

While I am no admirer of Thomas' and agree with one of his most prominent critics, retired federal appeals court Judge Leon Higginbotham, that many of Thomas' rulings have managed to "turn back the clock of racial progress," I think the National Bar Assn. should hitch up its metaphorical trousers and insist that the invitation remain open.

Black people do not march in political lockstep; we never have. And while the majority of our community may hold opinions closer to those of Higginbotham than to those of Thomas, both ends of the spectrum should be heard. To refuse Thomas or Proposition 209 nanny Ward Connerly or any other conservative a forum simply because they are conservative is to attribute much more potency to their opinions than they deserve.

Give those viewpoints air and light, and let us choose for ourselves. Most of us won't be swayed by what often turn out to be mediocre sentiments studded with platitudes. Allowing those with whom we disagree to speak ensures that the curtain will be pulled away to show them as little men with voices artificially amplified by the special-interest groups and political parties that are so gleefully using them.

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