Native scholar Monk links South, debate on liberty

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 3, 2003

[06/3/03]Southerners have been at the forefront of our national debate on liberty from its beginning, Vicksburg native and constitutional scholar Linda R. Monk said Monday.

Now a resident of the Washington, D.C., area, she spoke to about 75 people at the Southern Cultural Heritage Center.

“Southerners are big about family,” she said. “Our Constitution is our greatest birthright.”

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Monk, an author and freelance journalist, took time to sign her most recent book, “The Words We Live By: Your Annotated Guide to the Constitution,” released in February by Hyperion Books. Monk is also a two-time winner of the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award, its highest honor for law-related media, for two of her other books, published in 1998 and 2000.

Three Southerners stand out as examples of those who have influenced constitutional debate, she said. George Washington, a Virginian, served as the United States’ first president and presided over the constitutional convention in 1787. Jefferson Davis, a Mississippian, was a leading proponent of states’ rights while serving as a U.S. senator and later served as president of the Confederacy. And Fannie Lou Hamer, a black Mississippian and a sharecropper’s daughter, risked her life by attempting to register to vote and continued to push for civil rights, Monk said.

Americans have a long and proud tradition of arguing over what liberty means, Monk said.

“We’re still arguing today,” she said. “That’s our job; we’re supposed to argue.”

Former state Sen. Grey Ferris introduced Monk, describing her as an honor graduate of Warren Central High School and the University of Mississippi, where she was first in her class, and a graduate with a distinguished record from Harvard Law School.

Monk began her talk with a story from when she was 9 years old and growing up in southern Warren County.

“The most important thing to me in the little Jeff Davis community was the bookmobile,” she said. “Every two weeks, we’d walk the mile to the bookmobile” to check out books, she said, adding that the library was generally out of her travel range from there.

A letter to the editor, which resulted in the defeat of a proposal to cut the bookmobile’s funding for that route from the county budget, taught her one of her first constitutional lessons, she said.

“That showed me the power of the newspaper and freedom of speech,” she said, referring to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Monk’s mother, Betty Monk, and uncle, Jesse Monk, are Warren County residents, and her aunt, Georgia Cox, lives in Hinds County, she said.

Monk is married to Stephen Cook, a civilian working at U.S. Army Headquarters at the Pentagon.

“I do a lot of freelance writing, especially for the Chicago Tribune,” she said after her talk and book-signing. “And I do some training for teachers at Mount Vernon (Va.)”

Monk said she will be a visiting scholar this summer at the new National Center for the Constitution in Philadelphia.

“It’s the first interactive museum dedicated to the Constitution,” she said. “It’s on the mall, right across from Independence Hall.”

During her speech, Monk discussed the writing of the influential federal judge Learned Hand, who cautioned Americans during the height of World War II against relying too much on institutions to guard their country’s spirit of liberty.

People should guard against putting their hopes too much in the Constitution and the courts, she quoted Hand as saying. “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no law, no court, no constitution can save it.”

Monk’s new book is “a reference book for a general adult audience,” she said. It includes facts and trivia about the Constitution, as well as analysis and interpretation.