He was accused of betraying his people.
But Anthony Griffin was simply protecting free speech.
Griffin, a noted civil rights attorney, is African American. Five years ago, he agreed to defend the Ku Klux Klan.
“It was for the sake of the First Amendment,” said Griffin, who was fired as general counsel to the Texas NAACP for representing the KKK. “If I didn’t defend his right to free speech, I would lose my own right.”
Griffin will be in Spokane Monday to discuss free speech in the context of race and multiculturalism. His lecture will include details of his experience representing Michael Lowe, the former Grand Dragon of the Texas Knights of the KKK.
The case started when a Texas prosecutor brought a contempt of court action against Lowe to force him to disclose the Klan’s membership.
Griffin abhorred Lowe’s belief in white supremacy. But after being asked by the American Civil Liberties Union, he took the case without pay.
The First Amendment was at stake, he said, and “vulnerable” minority groups, including the KKK, have the right to keep their membership lists confidential. That same right was first recognized in a 1958 NAACP case by a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court.
“I never viewed it as defending Michael Lowe,” Griffin said in a telephone interview. “It was about my right to free speech. If I let this happen to him, then the state could ask for my own membership list.”
Many were outraged at Griffin’s decision. The Houston Chronicle reported the story under the headline, “Black Lawyer Giving His All to the Klan.” During several appearances on black radio stations in Chicago and Houston, he received only five calls of support.
But Griffin persisted. Once he explained why he defended Lowe, most people understood where he was coming from, he said. Many were able to relate to his belief in free speech.
Griffin had more than his critics to deal with. He had to learn to work with Lowe, an avowed racist who was put in charge of the area’s Klan rallies.
Their relationship was strained at first, Griffin recalled. The Klansman didn’t realize he was African American until they met. All Lowe knew was that Griffin was a First Amendment expert.
But “racism flew out the window” for the most part, Griffin said. They had no choice but to work together.
Lowe taunted him on occasion, sometimes making racist remarks to his face. After they won the case, the Klansman called him and said, “I’m so happy you did a good job. We’re coming to Galveston to burn crosses in your honor.”
The case lasted a year. To this day, Lowe phones Griffin at his law office to seek legal advice.
The attorney, now 43, has never regretted defending the KKK. But he’s still disappointed that his own race took the spotlight.
“My role over the years was that of a man who defended the Constitution,” Griffin said. “But societal racism makes people think that a black man can’t defend a Klansman.
“My role as a lawyer was defined by my color.”
Griffin may be best known for defending Lowe, but his work in civil rights should also be recognized, said Christy Garcia, who helped bring the speaker to Spokane.
“This man stands for everything we’re about,” said Garcia, president of the law school’s Multicultural Law Caucus. “He can see beyond our enemy. He’s defending us.”
Like the law caucus, Griffin’s work is about fostering unity and diversity, Garcia said.
A graduate of the University of Houston law school, Griffin grew up on the Gulf Coast of Texas. His defense of the First Amendment in the Lowe case won him the first William J. Brennan Jr. Award in 1993.
“All the First Amendment says is that we have a right to criticize, speak, pray, dance, sing and assemble in a free society without our government saying ‘shut up,”’ Griffin said.
“Let the fool (Lowe) talk. I want the same privilege to tell everyone that he’s a fool,” Griffin said.
Anthony Griffin will speak on “Multiculturalism, Free Speech and Race in the Marketplace of Ideas,” 7 p.m. Monday at Gonzaga Law School, Room C-1.
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