After objecting to a quote from Malcolm X on a painting by middle school students, state Sen. Tom Davis offered to debate anyone who disagrees with him.
Beaufort County school board member Michael Rivers has stepped up to the challenge.
Davis, R-Beaufort, proposed the debate after taking flak for tweeting and posting a photo to Facebook on March 27 of a painting by eighth-graders at Robert Smalls Intermediate/Middle School containing an excerpt from a 1964 speech by Muslim minister and civil rights activist Malcolm X.
Malcolm X's comment, "You can't have capitalism without racism," was on the painting.
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As part of Black History Month, the art students were asked to commemorate various aspects of the Civil Rights Movement, according to an email response from Robert Smalls principal Denise Smith. One group researched the movement's history and chose to depict Malcolm X.
The Facebook posting led to a flurry of comments by parents, calling the quote offensive and an inappropriate endorsement of anti-free-market theories, such as communism. Others, while questioning the selection of the quote, defended the artwork as the students' right to free speech.
Davis has said his goal wasn't censorship, but to ensure that such an "incendiary" statement was presented in context and not as implied acceptance of the view.
The quote originally appeared unattributed, Smith said, with the attribution being added later. She agreed the painting wasn't presented with sufficient context and recognized that students could mistakenly assume the school endorsed the idea.
"It's one thing to allow students to explore even explosive ideas in the right learning environment," Davis wrote in a letter to the editor published April 2. "It's quite another for students to be confronted with the idea that our nation's economic system is racist without any discussion or context."
Davis then sent an email Friday, copied to district administrators, school board members and the media, stating that at Smith's invitation he "would welcome the opportunity to share with the middle-school students the benefits I believe capitalism have given to our society, perhaps alongside someone who doesn't view that economic system as favorably."
"I believe a full and frank exchange of ideas is always helpful to the learning process," Davis said by phone today.
Rivers agreed and jumped at the chance to debate Davis.
"I believe the discussion could contribute to a positive and productive educational opportunity for students as well as adults," he wrote in response to Davis' email. "Let's make it happen."
Board member Jim Beckert also welcomed the debate "to serve as an example for students of what open, reasoned and respectful discourse can and should be like."
Interim superintendent Jackie Rosswurm told Davis she would check with Smith to see what she believes to be the most appropriate for students and staff.
Smith had yet to respond. Attempts to reach her and Rivers this morning were unsuccessful.