At a moment when our country stands at a potentially transformative political moment–an opportunity to realize the ideal of a nation governed by the rule of law, the Massachusetts ACLU held its annual Bill of Rights dinner to honor the courage of those who protect our rights as defined in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.
It was an evening of powerful personal and political testimony. James Yee, a former US Army Captain who served as Muslim Chaplain for the US prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba spoke of how he stood up to the chain of command in defense of Muslim prisoner’s basic rights. Kerry Kennedy, a human rights activist, and niece of Senator Edward Kennedy, celebrated the Massachusetts Senator’s long-running and tenacious defense of human rights and civil liberties and spoke movingly of how Kennedy had defended dissidents around the world who were now members of their country’s government. And Baratunde Thurston, a self-described “vigilante pundit” and “conscious comic,” author and blogger, had 600 people in downtown Boston laughing mightily as he skewered the follies of times past, present and future.
The evening was spirited, moving, and inspiring for its celebration of conscience and dedication to causes won, and not yet won. I was privileged to be a part of it. My keynote remarks follow.
Katrina vanden Heuvel
Remarks to the 28th Annual Bill of Rights Dinner
ACLU Foundation of Massachusetts
May 28, 2009
In 1918, two years before he founded the ACLU, my godfather, Roger Baldwin, went to prison. As a leader of the American Union Against Militarism, he refused to sign up for the World War I draft. A judge sent him to jail for a year.
At the time, most people assumed Baldwin wouldn’t actually have to serve his sentence. After all, he had friends in high places, and some of them offered to write to President Wilson personally and have him pardoned. Baldwin turned them down.
Later that year, a clerical error took two months off his sentence, and Baldwin was the only one who noticed. So what did he do? He wrote the judge in his case to say, “Listen, there’s been a mistake,” and he served those two months.
Why did he refuse to leave prison early? Was it simply that he was contrary? Well, maybe a little. But at the heart of Roger Baldwin’s philosophy, at the heart of the ACLU, at the heart of America, is an absolute faith in the Rule of Law. In a democracy, nobody has a get out of jail free card.