The occasion was the dedication of a new conference center at the headquarters of Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA (RAFI), and the honored guest was Dan Pollitt, founding board member and a longtime constitutional law professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. Addressing the crowd that gathered outside the building, Chatham County Commissioner Gary Phillips set the tone by recalling how Pollitt had helped him way back in the days when Phillips was a troubled teenager. "Dan Pollitt has spent his entire life speaking truth to power," said Phillips, a colorful dude with walrus whiskers. Then, after a pause, he added, "I think I heard an amen on that!"
The new passive-solar building is an avatar of the sustainable technologies advocated by RAFI. Much of the building material was reclaimed from the 19th-century home that originally occupied the site. Deemed unsalvageable, the building was "deconstructed" (the term "demolished " will not do here) and much of the original heart pine is in evidence on the floor of the new conference center. RAFI's leaders decided to name the building for Pollitt because he has been involved with the group since its origins as an outgrowth of the Depression-era National Sharecroppers Fund.
Inside the conference room, a veritable who's who of North Carolina legal luminaries took turns paying tribute to the man that one speaker, former Wake County District Attorney Wade Smith called, "my hero, the person after whom I have modeled my life." As Pollitt sat nearby, blinking shyly, former state Supreme Court Justice Burley Mitchell testified to the professor's moral influence on him in the 1960s. Famed civil-rights lawyer Julius Chambers spoke movingly of Pollitt's efforts to make him and other pioneering African Americans feel welcome (and safe) at UNC.
Finally, Professor Pollitt stood up. Breaking with the nostalgia, he spoke of pressing business, namely the defiantly obtuse performance of John Ashcroft defending post-Sept. 11 legal crackdowns before the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier in the day. In a perfect alignment of history, geography, metaphor and meaning, Pollitt quoted an 18th-century peroration delivered in the British House of Lords by a certain Lord Pitt, namesake of Pittsboro. Speaking in defense of a celebrated free speech martyr, one John Wilkes (namesake of Lincoln's assassin, Wilkesboro, and many other progeny), Pitt declared, "A British subject may live in a shanty with a thatched roof--the wind may enter, the rain may enter, the cold may enter--but the constabulary may not enter without probable cause and an order from a magistrate." The crowd of RAFI staff, fundraisers, volunteers and farmers nodded and applauded.
Pollitt then cited two more of his own teachers. After quoting a James Madison line that warned against creeping incursions upon civil liberties, he turned to a giant of 20th-century jurisprudence, Louis Brandeis. Writing about a Prohibition-era case, the Supreme Court justice observed, "Experience should teach us to be most on guard to protect our liberty when the government's purpose is beneficent."
Pollitt looked up from his notes and added this coda: "If the shoe fits for our president, so be it."
Then he sat down.