- - Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The American public has been barraged with reports of violent student protests on campuses throughout the nation. Riots erupted in Berkeley regarding a presentation by rightist commentator Milo Yiannopoulos. A lawless mob rampaged through the campus at Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington, after a professor refused to comply with a mandate by black students that white professors and students vacate the campus.

Students waged an explosive protest at Middlebury College in Vermont after an appearance by conservative author Charles Murray in which his hosting professor ended up hospitalized and students rocked Mr. Murray’s car and pummeled its windows when he tried to leave.

Not only are all these incidents evidence of a dangerous polarization that is taking place in the country, they also have one thing in common that is even more deeply troubling: The presidents of these institutions were complicit in the actions of the student demonstrators by refusing to summon the campus police to protect the victims.

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In Berkeley, though the estimate of the damage caused was $100,000, not a single arrest was made. No police officers were on-site at Middlebury, where violent students were reprimanded only with a temporary note in their records. And, at Evergreen, the campus police were told by the college president to stand down. When the police were finally called to action, it was in response to retaliatory threats from the alt-right.

By failing to deploy the police to adequately protect their professors and invited speakers, the college presidents were complicit in the lawless actions of the protesters. The failure of these three presidents to protect people with dissenting views shared much in common with the city officials in Birmingham, Alabama, during the civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s.

When the demonstrators began their march, Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor gave his tacit permission for the Ku Klux Klan and other white objectors to have their way with the demonstrators for 15 minutes. His police officers stood by and watched as the mob savagely beat black men, woman and children. When the police finally moved into action, it was to arrest the civil rights demonstrators.

The student protesters we witness today proclaim that they are the champions of social justice and civil rights, while in fact, they are commandeering the rich legacy and hard-won victories of the Movement. The principles and vision that guided that movement are being twisted and contorted to fit every misguided notion of social justice and victims’ rights to advance identity-based group grievances.

In the Sixties, civil rights demonstrators fought a war against injustice and for inclusion on a level playing field. We did not make the sacrifices that we did so different minority groups of graduating students today can demand their own separate graduation ceremonies, as some have. Our goal was to be judged by the content of our character, not by the color of our skin — or our sexual orientation, or gender identity.

We fought for freedom of speech, not limited to that which pleases or agrees with our opinion. In fact it was the presence of spirited challenges and debate within the ranks of the movement that propelled it to success. Under the leadership of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., protests were at all times peaceful and their intent was to stop the transgressions of our enemies by winning them over as friends.

It is the responsibility of those of us who were on the front lines of that movement to declare that the goals, spirit, and tactics of college protesters today have nothing to do with the vision that so many struggled and even died for 50 years ago.

There is a real danger that if the only challenge to the forces of race grievance is violent opposition from the extreme right, the anarchists in this country could push us into severe open racial conflict. Responsible peaceful voices of opposition to the race grievance industry must join together to rescue the civil rights legacy from defamation. Dr. King counseled that the only protection that a minority has is the demand for moral consistency.

Most Americans share this vision of a civil rights agenda, but they are being silenced by those on the extremes. It is time to provide a platform for the voices of the silent majority.

• Robert L. Woodson, the president and founder of the Woodson Center, is the author of “The Triumphs Of Joseph: How Todays Community Healers Are Reviving Our Streets And Neighborhoods” (Free Press, 2007).

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