When people hear the name Frederick Hart, they immediately think of the world-famous sculptor who created such masterpieces as “Creation of Night” and “Ex Nihilo.”
Such a reaction would be understandable, as Hart’s works adorn the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Washington National Cathedral. Pope John Paul II once called one of Hart’s works “a profound theological statement for our day.” Tom Wolfe called him “America’s greatest sculptor.” President George W. Bush posthumously awarded him the National Medal of Arts in 2004.
He remains lionized to this day. In March 2019, the Frederick Hart Studio Museum opened up on Belmont University’s campus. The beautiful museum serves as a fitting tribute to his artistic genius.
But Hart should be celebrated for another reason as well — his courage on behalf of civil rights and human decency.
In March 1961, nearly 200 African-American students — many from Allen University and Benedict College — marched from Mt. Zion Baptist Church to the statehouse in Columbia, S.C. They were protesting segregation and second-class treatment they received in the Jim Crow South.
Along the way, the African-American students were joined by one lone white teenager. That 16-year-old was none other than Frederick Hart. The teen was attending the University of South Carolina after scoring a near-perfect score on the A.C.T. Hart recognized the injustices of segregation and joined the Mt. Zion protest as it headed downtown. “I remember him standing on the curb watching us and just spontaneously joining the march,” recalls Jim Clyburn, one of the protestors who later became a U.S. congressman.
The students peacefully protested in front of the statehouse and faced arrests. They ultimately prevailed before the U.S. Supreme Court in Edwards v. South Carolina (1963) when the court famously declared: “The 14th Amendment [which extends the First Amendment to limit state and local governments] does not permit a state to make criminal the peaceful expression of unpopular views.”
Frederick Hart was not like most of us in life who just sit on the sidelines and watch others take up the mantle of social activism. Hart injected himself into the march for justice.
So when we appreciate the beauty and artistic genius of Frederick Hart, let’s also remember his commitment to justice and civil rights.
David L. Hudson Jr. is a First Amendment Fellow at the Freedom Forum Institute, and a law professor at Belmont University who publishes widely on First Amendment topics. He is the author of a 12-lecture audio course on the First Amendment titled, “Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment” (Now You Know Media, 2018). He also is the author of many First Amendment books, including “The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech” (Thomson Reuters, 2012) and “Freedom of Speech: Documents Decoded” (ABC-CLIO, 2017).