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Civil rights protesters, German artists share love of freedom

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Gene Policinski
May 1, 2010

The fight for freedom of expression takes many forms. But it occurs again and again, at different times, in different cultures, among very different people. And in the United States, the First Amendment makes the fight profoundly different from the struggles elsewhere.


A group of German artists, all linked by age, experience or art to postwar, divided Germany, sat down recently for a discussion at the First Amendment Center in Nashville with veterans of the American civil rights movement, the 1960 Nashville sit-ins and later the Freedom Rides.


Nonviolence, resistance to fear and speaking truth to power were themes that united this otherwise disparate set of panelists. And one more connection: the power of free speech to excite, unite, disturb and even frighten those in government who would shush, silence, restrain and even jail those who spoke outside the official boundaries.


For the then-teenagers who marched through Music City streets to call for desegregation of lunch counters, it was a time to recall how the freedom to march, to protest and to seek “a redress of grievances” from their government enabled them to challenge a two-century-old system that one speaker called an American “apartheid.”


For the eight German artists—part of the “Breakthrough” exhibition beginning its 2010 U.S. tour at the center in Nashville—it was a time to draw a distinction between protest in a democracy and protest under a totalitarian government. In America, one artist observed, there was both the freedom to protest and the hope that things would change. In the former East Germany, controls were so pervasive that the government started a file on one of the artists when a fellow student reported he was seen whispering to another student in the corner of a playground—clearly subversive activity in those days, it would seem.


Not that the artists disparaged the courage or risk taken by American civil rights protesters. Even though three of the eight artists served jail time for expressive works that violated East German laws, the group said the physical danger to civil rights workers far outweighed, in general, whatever challenges they had faced.


A point of agreement was that freedom of expression through music had been an effective tool to push for social justice and to maintain the spirits of those protesting against repression. Rip Patton, who followed the sit-ins by becoming a Freedom Rider, recalled how music both disarmed violent opposition and raised the morale of those who had been jailed. Patton, a musician, said a song sung softly by a young woman protesting at a lunch counter apparently caused a change of heart in a man threatening to extinguish a cigarette on her forehead.


Several German artists recalled being inspired by the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome,” even when East bloc governments tried to tie the song and the civil rights movement to the official communist line that American capitalism was a failed system because of widespread discrimination.


Patton closed the meeting by leading panel members and the audience—in linked arms—in several verses of “We Shall Overcome.” It was a lyrical echo of a movement that began five decades earlier and that is rooted in the First Amendment’s five freedoms.


Despite language barriers and differences in age and culture and experiences, German artists and American protesters alike all seemed to know the words to that song.


Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: www.firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: gpolicinski@fac.org.

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