It has been a red-letter season
of campus speakers.
• Patricia Williams,
a professor of constitutional law at Columbia University, gave the address for the College’s
annual tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. on January 25. Though a writer of the tongue-in-cheek “Diary
of a Mad Law Professor” for
The Nation magazine, Williams offered a sobering assessment of the state of race relations
around the globe. Less a speech than a brilliantly written essay read aloud, Williams’ presentation
was the kind of courageous statement that in later years will be held up as an example
of insight beyond its occasion.
• On February 10, film
producer Keith Beauchamp screened his documentary about the brutal murder of Emmett Till,
a Chicago teen who made the mistake of whistling at a white woman in Mississippi in 1955.
Beauchamp worked for nine years to get to the truth of Emmett’s
death and discovered that many more than the two men who went on trial for his killing
(and were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury) were involved in the conspiracy
to teach Emmett a lesson. His research persuaded the Justice Department to reopen the
The documentary is a powerful
illustration of how race affected the judicial system across the South. Emmett Till has
gotten rather lost in the chronology of marches, protests, boycotts, and civil disobedience
that carried the civil rights movement forward in the mid-1960s. But for anyone who wondered
why Martin Luther King Jr. chose the hot and sticky day of August 28 for the 1963 March
on Washington, the date marked the eighth anniversary of Emmett Till’s murder.
another event sponsored by the Leadership Center, James Blight and Janet Lang, professors
from the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, came to campus
February 17 to show and discuss The Fog of War. Errol Morris’s Academy
Award-winning 2003 documentary is an intense conversation with former secretary
of defense Robert F. McNamara, who helped the Kennedy brothers successfully resolve
the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, then oversaw the disastrous U.S. intervention in
Vietnam. It is also an unprecedented oral history, though the only perspective is that
Blight and Lang’s discussion of McNamara’s role as a leader
and a follower, a man who knew how misguided were Lyndon Johnson’s failed policies
in Vietnam, yet willingly took the blame for them, was based on more than 20 years’ acquaintance
with McNamara. To further the work of their program at Brown, which seeks to understand
the forces behind conflict, Blight and Lang organized two conferences that brought
former enemies together to understand what had happened in these tense situations:
one with McNamara and Castro, another with McNamara and Vietnamese guerrilla and political
leaders. These conferences, as well as their diplomatic handling of McNamara, brought
in the two professors as consultants to the film.