Summarizing a silly debate with casual British nonchalance, Charles Brooker, a columnist for The Guardian, wrote: “I once had a poo in a pub about two minutes’ walk from Buckingham Palace. I was not subsequently arrested and charged with crapping directly onto the Queen’s pillow. That’s how ‘distance’ works” (‘Ground Zero mosque’? The reality is less provocative, 08/23/2010).

As the ninth anniversary of Sept. 11 passes, we once again take a moment to reflect how much the world changed that day. But the physics of “distance” still doesn’t bend for sentimentality, and Brooker’s point is well taken. The supposed “Ground Zero mosque” is being built a good two minutes’ walk away from ground zero, and in New York City, that’s a buffer zone of countless buildings and tens of thousands of people.

Liberal know-it-alls have embraced this side of the story and mocked certain oblivious conservatives who insist that Ground Zero has special significance, and no mosque can be built there. But in indulging this idiotic side debate, the actual important point is lost — if the First Amendment is still good, that mosque can be built even on the hallowest of grounds, proper building permits considered.

But suddenly that’s not the argument. By advocating the most ludicrous extreme possible, the Right has managed to water down the debate so much that a principled stand for a fundamental constitutional right is off the table. And recently, scumbag Donald Trump offered to just buy up land at a premium to prevent the mosque from being built there. Such benighted ignorance is a grave mistake, reminiscent of this country’s greatest failure: Segregation. One part of that story follows.

Mayor Johnny Smith was a fine man. As recounted in Kevin Boyle’s award-winning book, “Arc of Justice,” Smith was elected in 1924 and guided Detroit through tumultuous times. Despite the city’s spiraling prosperity — thanks to the industrial boom that made Detroit America’s fourth largest city — racial tensions created dangerous unrest.

A Polish-Catholic who came up from the streets of the city’s East Side, Smith was working class through and through. He was a champion of the huddled masses who made up the massive, miserable underbelly of Detroit’s industrial juggernaut, and Smith’s election was a step for progress.

And Johnny Smith never really changed. He always remained a champion of the poor, the weak and even the black. But when times got tough, he made the mistake of accepting compromise on the question of basic civil rights. On such things, there can never be compromise.

Detroit had clearly segregated housing even as early as the 1920s. But black professionals who had earned a reputation and a fortune thought they deserved better. If they had the money to move to a nicer house on the white side of town, wasn’t that their right as Americans?

So thought Dr. Alexander Turner, a respected black surgeon. And he probably still thought it while huddled in a pool of blood on the floor of his car as his chauffeur sped away from an angry white mob that had just thrown Turner out of his new house. So thought Dr. Ossian Sweet, whose murder trial for firing into another angry white mob seeking to evict him is one of the most famous in Michigan’s annals of justice.

And so too, thought Johnny Smith. Certainly black people had the right to live wherever they wished, Smith said in an open letter printed in the city’s newspapers on Sept. 12, 1925. But, he went on to say: “It does not do for any man to demand to the fullest any right which the law gives him.” Black people, Smith believed, needed to calm down, play nice and stop trying to exercise rights they technically did have.

Smith was wrong. Black people’s right to live anywhere they please means nothing unless they are protected in choosing to live peacefully among white neighbors who don’t want them there.

Today we recognize that truth. Perhaps one day soon we’ll recognize another truth as well: If freedom of religion still exists in this country, Muslims can build a mosque (within fair ordinances and with permits) wherever they damn well please.

Hallowed ground? That’s what those white mobs said of white neighborhoods. But thankfully, it’s still America, and the Constitution doesn’t make such fickle exceptions. Dr. Sweet had the great Clarence Darrow and Frank Murphy — the University law school’s two proudest alumni — to ensure that even an all-white jury was convinced of that crucial truth.

The mobs gather again now, in New York and elsewhere, to deny a minority group its constitutional rights. Who will rise against the madness to defeat them this time?

Imran Syed can be reached at galad@umich.edu.

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