Some months ago I reported and commented on the hazards to highway safety of unsightly billboards, and the danger that, unless something is done soon by federal and state governments, the 41,000 miles of super highways to be built will become so many miles of billboard jungle. Since then much has appeared in the papers on this subject, as well as over radio and television media. There is more than safety involved, for as the late Ogden Nash wrote some years ago:
I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree,
Perhaps unless the billboards fall
I’ll never see a tree at all.
This may be humor, but it is desperate humor. Senator Neuberger, of Oregon, has just introduced in the U.S. Senate a bill, which, if enacted, would permit the use of federal funds by the states to buy up advertising options to 500 feet of land adjoining the proposed highway system. This is a bill that Congress should enact, and the states should take advantage of. Ours can be a land of beauty, and there is no reason why your and my tax dollars should be spent to build highways that are to become narrow avenues through dangerous and unsightly commercial advertisements. Senator Neuberger puts it this way: “It’s the motorists money which makes the billboard site of value. If the highways were not there, the signboard would be worth less than a continental dollar. The highway, paid for by the motorist, makes valuable the signboard which the motorist is forced to look at while traveling through the land.” But the senator knows what he is up against. The billboard lobby accused it opponents, at the federal level, of violating state rights. At the state level, it accuses them of “robbing widows and orphans of the money they get for renting the land for billboards.” They also have, he says, a unique definition of “free enterprise,” which according to them is an improvement on God…. “If you look at lakes and trees and mountains as you drive along the highways, you go to sleep, but if you look at billboards advertising a brand of whiskey or cigarettes, … you stay awake.” How maudlinly commercial can you get?
The Union Presbytery, of the Presbyterian Church USA, has called for complete integration of public schools in Tennessee, and has condemned the governor’s recently enacted segregation laws as an invitation to the lawless. Meeting in Knoxville, the presbytery also asked both governor and legislature to reconsider their action on these laws, and to take steps to eliminate “all forms of racial segregation as denial of the fatherhood of God to all men, of the brotherhood of man, and of the dignity and worth of the individual.” It also urged upon the general assembly the adoption of a program that would “assist all Christians in preparing their communities psychologically and spiritually for carrying out the full implications of the Supreme Court’s decision.” It emphasized, “We believe that delay in carrying out the intent of the … decision can only postpone our dealings with a problem which we are bound by law and conscience to face and solve.”
Another important piece of legislation now in the congressional hopper is the proposals regarding civil rights, proposals designed to safeguard those fundamental freedoms that distinguish a free society from a dictatorial one. Southern (so-called) Democrats have given notice they will filibuster the bills to death, or failing in that, will form a third party. During the forthcoming debate we shall hear invocations of the shades of Jefferson, shouting about state rights, condemnation of the Supreme Court, and in short, all the tricks in the politician’s bag to befuddle and confuse the issue and to wear down supporters of the measure.
Much of the oratory will probably be centered around the meaning of the Bill of Rights and later amendments at the time they were added to the Constitution. There is no doubt about the meaning of the First Amendment, guaranteeing freedom of speech, press, assembly, and religion. Many will argue that the 14th Amendment was designed to permit a mixture of races in the public schools. But much of the argument will be a matter of semantics. On the broad principles of free government under due process of law there is no appreciable dispute. But perhaps the most significant problem in the field of civil liberties today is to obtain as clear and widely agreed-upon definition of the basic principles as applied to contemporary conditions as possible.
It is a commonplace that each generation since Jefferson has been compelled to redefine constitutional right and guarantees in accordance with its own conscience and the conditions confronting it. Many of those who signed the Declaration in 1776 that said all men are created equal and had certain unalienable rights were slave owners; and the modifying definitions which they gave to that statement in order to perpetuate chattel slavery had to be wholly revised at a later age. This task of redefinition is unending. It is peculiarly difficult today as we seek to apply principle formulated in the simple and mainly agrarian society of the 18th century to political, social, and economic conditions which have been so vastly transformed since that day. The very idea of civil liberty implies a sound reconciliation of the conflicting claims of the diversified individual, the pluralistic community, and the unitary state. The measures before the Senate would attempt such a reconciliation through a broadening of the definition of civil rights to make it conform to today’s realities.
A student editorial in a current issue of a local college newspaper is of such penetrating discernment that its comments seem worth passing on to you, insofar as time will allow. It says:
“On our campus now there are a number of free-thinking liberals who frequently come under heavy criticism for their ‘different’ type of thinking. The ultra-conservative true-blue believers in the great American myth … are in the forefront of the challengers.
“The liberals here, always quick to tell their classes what is fact and what is opinion, are in the minority and therefore subject to dark threats by the pseudo-intellectuals. They are accused of being former members of a John Reed Club, donating money to the Reds in the Spanish Civil War, teaching evolution, and beating their wives. All accusations, even if true, would have some degree of merit. It is interesting to note the source of this criticism, which is, by the way, much more prevalent than most instructors and students realize. Without naming specific groups, the criticism generally originates among religious fanatics, chauvinistic individuals, persons who parrot the catchy phrases of essentially narrow-minded clods, and the apathetic leaders of useless groups.
“To what do they object? Basically they are objecting to a type of thought that will ultimately destroy them; they are objecting to the potential destruction of blind faith based on fallacies; they are objecting to theories that may prove they are not the superior beings and God is not always on their side.
“The manner of criticism employed is insidious, born in the darkness and spread subtly. It occasionally gains momentum, until it reaches the point that certain factions outside the campus are leveling remarks in high places against the freethinkers here. Generally it travels by word of mouth from person to person, group to group.
“The irony of this is that the liberal instructors remain unconcerned, serenely confident that one day they will be average, not extraordinary. They are not perturbed when people disagree with them, but they do object to answers based on what is safest to say.
“This problem of criticism is one that has plagued liberals since Adam and Eve hiked out of the garden; it may go on ad infinitum. Nevertheless, we would like to put in a plug, here and now, for the very few instructors and even fewer students among us who are inclined to think for themselves.
“We feel those thinkers are the ultimate hope for man; that they are worth hearing simply because they are honest. Contrary to being atheistic, or even agnostic, and communistic, they take a long look at humanity and being optimistic, try to show the way. They will be around when the diplomatic liars, the militaristic nonentities, the superior race fanatics, and the dishonest leaders have long since passed into an ignoble place in history, or forgotten altogether.”