Kim Davis and some other guys.

Photographer: Ty Wright/Getty Images

Kim Davis, Forgettable Martyr

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
Read More.
a | A

Quick: When did Dashiell Hammett go to prison, and for what? How about Emmeline Pankhurst? Or Robert Shelton? Or William Prynne? For that matter, who exactly were Robert Shelton and William Prynne?

Shelton, then the reigning imperial wizard of the United Klans of America, went to prison in 1969 along with two other senior leaders after Congress had three years earlier held him in contempt for refusing to turn over Klan membership lists to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Prynne was an English lawyer and Puritan, sentenced to life in prison in the 17th century for his writings against the established church and, supposedly, against the monarchy.

At the time they went to prison, both were hugely controversial public figures. “The treatment of William Prynne,” wrote the historian William Howitt, “is known to everybody.” Probably that wasn’t even true when Howitt penned those words, in 1834. Certainly it isn’t now.

As for Shelton, Klan leaders bragged that his imprisonment would lead to a sympathetic increase in funding and membership. Instead, the imperial wizard’s conviction accelerated the group’s decline into moribundity.

Some might remember the repeated jailing of crusading suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst because she’s taught in high school history courses. (Or because they’ve seen “Mary Poppins.”) As for Hammett, I’m not sure that even many of his fans know that the great novelist was imprisoned for pretty much the same thing as Shelton, albeit as a man of the left rather than the right.

Which brings us to Kim Davis. Davis, a Kentucky state official until recently so obscure that reporters couldn’t get her political affiliation straight, spent five days in jail for contempt after defying a court order to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Upon her release, she was hailed by a handful of activists and politicians as a martyr for religious freedom.

Everybody knows that.

I’m betting, however, that six months from now few people will remember Davis’s name, whether or not they agreed with her stand. A quarter-century hence, the number will be arbitrarily close to zero.

This prediction has nothing to do with your view of same-sex marriage, or of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last spring on the subject, or of the clash between religious liberty and equality. The prediction comes from the simple fact that prisoners come and go, often sacrificing in causes to which they are sincerely devoted, but by and large they leave no impact. Most are remembered briefly, if at all.

One reason we’re familiar with the blacklisted screenwriters from the 1950s -- the Hollywood Ten -- is that they had a cool, memorable label. Naming them individually is harder. So is explaining exactly what they were blacklisted for. But everybody knows the ban was wrong.

Even in those religious traditions where the tradition of martyrdom plays a crucial role in the narrative of the faith, the actual martyrs are often tough to call to mind. Most Christians, for example, would be hard pressed to come up with anyone other than Stephen, and perhaps James. Apart from church historians, I suspect that few could identify Vibia Perpetua, a Carthaginian noblewoman who was persecuted by the Romans. In the year 203, Perpetua refused multiple pleas to recant her faith and was torn to pieces by wild beasts. Her experience was widely reported in the early martyr literature, but for all that she was said to be an inspiration, she is today unknown. I’m not suggesting that it’s wrong that no one remembers; I’m suggesting that martyrs fade into history.

Usually they fade fast.

Of course there are exceptions. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 stint in Birmingham City Jail is remembered, but only because of his famous letter composed therein. If you think the reason we know about Birmingham is King’s own larger-than-life role in history, consider why we never discuss his experiences the year before in the Albany, Georgia, jail.

And even when we remember those who’ve been sentenced to prison or worse for their beliefs, we’re often a little hazy on what lessons to draw. Take the Hollywood Ten. Is the lesson that people shouldn’t be denied work because of their politics? (In which case right and left alike tend to misbehave today.) Or is the lesson that people shouldn’t be punished for refusing to name names before congressional committees? (In which case the aforementioned imperial wizard was railroaded.)

Often we remember the martyr but not the cause. Everybody knows that Henry David Thoreau wrote about civil disobedience and spent a night in jail, but unless we’ve recently read a biography, we’re not likely to recall that his offense was failing for several years to pay his taxes.

Still, at least we remember Thoreau. We remember King. We remember Gandhi. Beyond those, our knowledge of those who’ve been imprisoned for a cause tends to be scattered and thin. Somehow I don’t think that Davis will manage to stand out from the crowd.

History tends to remember martyrs, if at all, who stood on the side that future generations think was right. And that’s the other reason I believe that Kim Davis will fade from memory. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde -- who also went to jail -- the fact that someone suffers for a cause doesn’t make the cause right.

  1. As I have mentioned before, my great-uncle Alphaeus Hunton was imprisoned with him. I take it for granted that nobody remembers him either.

  2. To see the straight-faced correction by the New York Times, scroll to the end of this story.

  3. Yes, I do know that he refused to pay taxes as a protest against slavery and war. But that proposition doesn’t tell us whether tax protests are good or bad.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net