Patriot Acts: Two Giants for Justice Leave Behind a Legacy of Activism and of Patriotism

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I WAS READING some of the many tributes to Palestinian activist and scholar Edward Said, who died on September 25, when a friend called from New York's Union Theological Seminary. He wanted to send me a new film documentary that features William Sloane Coffin Jr.--like Said, a giant in the struggle for justice. Edward Said died at age 67, after a decade-long battle with leukemia. Coffin is, thankfully, still with us at age 79.

The two men have worked indifferent settings and for different causes. But both combined scholarship and passion and in their own way fought for justice in an unjust world despite constant battering from those who wanted them silenced. Yes, I wanted to see the film, A Lover's Quarrel with America (www.olddogdocumentaries.com), and I want others to see it, as well as to get acquainted with the works of Edward Said (see www.edwardsaid.org). We ignore the work of these two giants tot justice at our peril.

Said's first major academic work, Orientalism (1978), described how Western democracies were imperialistic in their attitude toward Arabs and Islam. Murad Othman wrote at the Web site www.GlobalComment.com that Said sought to expose "the inherent prejudice towards Arabs and Muslims in the writings and discourse of some of the West's leading writers and intellectuals. He argued that the portrayal of Arabs and Muslims in novels and other published materials in Europe and the U.S. was intended to legitimize colonialism."

Coffin and Said were both based for a time in New York City, Said at Columbia University and Coffin as pastor at Riverside Church (1977-1987). Coffin, a major leader in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam-war movements and a chaplain at Yale University, was one of seven freedom riders arrested and convicted in Montgomery, Alabama, while protesting segregation laws. (The Supreme Court later overturned the conviction.)

It was as an in-your-face activist and eloquent orator that Coffin entered the national stage at the height of the anti war movement in October 1967. In his new book, They Marched into Sunlight, David Maraniss remembers Coffin as at leader of a delegation that included Benjamin Spock, Norman Mailer and "a flock of antiwar notables" who marched up to the steps of the Justice Department in Washington. Coffin delivered an "eloquent" speech before entering the building to deliver a bag filled with 994 draft cards collected from young men to protest the war in Vietnam. "We cannot shield them, we can only expose ourselves as they have done," Coffin said of the young resisters.

A Justice Department official sough to defuse the protest and refused to accept the cards. …