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Guest Column
I’m a conservative professor who taught the importance of civil rights | Column
I did not look at my role in helping secure voting rights for Black Americans as a victory for conservatism or liberalism, but as a victory for democracy in America.
The Rev. William Barber speaks during a voting rights rally, at the U.S. Supreme Court Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
The Rev. William Barber speaks during a voting rights rally, at the U.S. Supreme Court Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana) [ JOSE LUIS MAGANA | AP ]
Published Oct. 30

Editor’s note: Darryl Paulson has contributed many essays over the years to our opinion pages. He called our attention to “An open letter in defense of democracy.” Here are some of his thoughts on the topic.

It is way past time that the left and right found something that could unify them: the defense of American democracy. For 35 years I taught Southern Politics from post-World War II until the present. Much of the focus was on the denial of political and civil rights to Black Americans in the South.

Darryl Paulson, Professor Emeritus of Government at the University of South Florida.
Darryl Paulson, Professor Emeritus of Government at the University of South Florida. [ Courtesy of Darryl Paulson ]

I talked about the origins of discrimination and described how every southern state, and many outside of the South, denied Black citizens the right to a quality education. They denied the rights of Black people to use public accommodations like hotels, restaurants, theaters, swimming pools and beaches simply because of their race. They denied Black men and women the right to marry individuals who were not Black. Most importantly, they denied Black citizens the right to register and vote for the candidates of their choice.

I can’t tell you how many students wrote to me or personally came to my office and thanked me for exposing them to the racial discrimination against Black Americans that lasted for over three centuries. I remember one of my better students came to me with a copy of the letter she had written to her parents explaining how “this wonderful liberal professor educated me about America’s history of racial discrimination.”

I thanked her for her kind words, but said there was one major error in her letter. I was not, and never have been, a liberal. I have always considered myself a conservative, and I told her that in 1991, I was appointed as a fellow at The Heritage Foundation, long viewed as the leading conservative think tank in America.

This student, who was familiar with many of the articles I had written about voter discrimination, and discrimination in public education and public accommodations, asked how I could teach what I taught and write what I wrote without being a liberal. I told her it was easy, because actually liberals and conservatives should agree on the values that made America great, and that included non-discrimination.

I had written so many articles on voter discrimination in Florida that I was hired by both the Florida and national NAACP a half dozen times as their expert witness in voting rights cases. One of the things I am most proud of was that in 1991, I was hired by both the Florida and national NAACP as their expert witness in redrawing Florida’s congressional districts. Florida had not elected a Black member to its congressional delegation since 1890.

In 1992, partially because of my testimony in federal court in Tallahassee, Florida elected three Black members to its then-25 person congressional delegation. To be honest, I would not have voted for any of the three, but I was proud that I had played a role in Black voters electing a candidate of their choice. I did not look at my role as a victory for conservatism or liberalism, but as a victory for democracy in America.

I think the authors of the “Open Letter in Defense of Democracy,” as well as all of the co-signers, are doing the same thing. As they point out, the left and right can disagree on public policy, but they need to be united in defense of American democracy.

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Darryl Paulson is emeritus professor of government at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg.