Maya Angelou, Herb Jeffries, and the Freedom to Prosper

Competitive Enterprise Institute President Lawson Bader has said, “What CEI does, on a daily basis and at its core, is to celebrate and defend free enterprise,” and “free enterprise is just another phrase for what I call the ‘freedom to prosper.'”

Lawson makes it clear that “prosperity” does not necessarily mean accumulation of possessions, but enrichment of one’s own life and those of others through individual choice. Free enterprise means freedom to pursue various options, and “we who defend economic liberty view these endeavors with a non-judgmental eye, recognizing them as the choices free individuals make to realize their dreams,'” he writes.

These thoughts on the freedom to prosper have been on my mind since last week after the passing of two individuals — one of whom I was privileged to know — who used what limited freedom they had in the “Jim Crow” system of state-enforced segregation to blaze paths to prosperity for themselves and others.

Maya Angelou, who died May 28 at 86, was a pivotal poet and author and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But this was far from the sum total of her varied career. As her Washington Post obituary notes, “She sang cabaret and calypso, danced with Alvin Ailey, acted on Broadway, directed for film and television and wrote more than 30 books, including poetry, essays and, responding to the public’s appetite for her life story, six autobiographies.”

Herb Jeffries, whom I had the privilege of interviewing for publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The Washington TimesInsight magazine, and American Profile (the latter of which was cited in his Time magazine obituary), died May 25 at 100. Before he turned 30, Mr.  Jeffries had become the first permanent male vocalist in the orchestra of jazz great Duke Ellington, as well as the creator and star of a pioneering series of all-black singing cowboy movies that dealt a blow against racial stereotypes.

After entertaining the World War II troops overseas upon joining the Army Special Services division, Mr. Jeffries began operating night clubs in post-war Europe. He returned to the U.S. in the 1950s, where he resumed his singing and acting career. A resurgence of interest in his work, coupled with the fact that he still had a beautiful baritone well into his 90s, led to a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a command performance at the White House, an numerous other honors bestowed on him in the last 15 years of his life.

Mr. Jeffries and Dr. Angelou (her preferred title, after several honorary degrees) had some key similarities. They both came from hardscrabble backgrounds, had a variety of jobs, and many times took risks with their careers with choices that seemed less than lucrative. They both fought prejudice and expanded opportunities for others through their own advancement as artists. They both were active as they advanced in age.

Neither could be said to be  libertarian in their politics. Dr. Angelou backed Hillary Clinton in 2008 and Barack Obama in 2012, though she did endorse Clarence Thomas’ nomination to the Supreme Court, an action that some on the Left still have not forgiven. Mr. Jeffries backed George W. Bush in 2004 after receiving gracious treatment from the president at the White House but was otherwise not politically active. Yet both expressed some libertarian sentiments having to do with defending the homestead during their advanced years.

In Dr. Angelou’s case, it was her expressed desire to have guns in her home and use them if necessary. With Mr. Jeffries, it was outrage that his government could take homes through eminent domain merely to advance some politician’s definition of “economic development.”

I found this out almost by accident when I interviewed Mr. Jeffries in 2005, after his performance at the Sweet & Hot Music Festival in Los Angeles. My friend Scott Bullock, senior attorney for Institute for Justice, is a huge fan of Duke Ellington’s music. So when I met Mr. Jeffries in person, I asked him if he could he please sign an autograph for Scott.

As many OpenMarket readers know, Scott was the  attorney defending those fighting a city’s attempts to take their homes to make way for a hotel development in Kelo v. New London. In 2005, The Supreme Court decided the case with a 5-4 ruling to let the eminent domain condemnations proceed. But property rights advocates scored a victory in the court of public opinion, as many states passed laws curbing eminent domain powers at the demand of outraged homeowners.

And one of those outraged was Mr. Jeffries. When I told Mr. Jeffries that my friend was the attorney defending the homeowners fighting eminent domain in Kelo, Mr. Jeffries inscribed the autograph with: “Scott, Best wishes. Keep fighting for us homeowners.”

Dr. Angelou’s comments about guns could also be said to be about freedom to secure one’s person and property. She told Time last year that while she didn’t “like to carry them,” she “like[d] to have guns around” her home in North Carolina. And she may have fended off an intruder once by firing one of her guns. As she recalled to the Time interviewer:

 I heard someone walking on the leaves. And somebody actually turned the knob. So I said, “Stand four feet back because I’m going to shoot now!” Boom! Boom!

Dr. Angelou explained further to National Public Radio’s Diane Rehm that she thought “a woman in a house alone needs some sort of protection” and couldn’t rely solely on the police. “By the time I call 911 and get some help out there I can be already hurt,” Dr. Angelou argued forcefully. “And I will not do it. I will not take that chance.”

For merely bringing up this point of agreement between Dr. Angelou and folks on the Right and noting mildly that he wasn’t the biggest fan of her work, National Review‘s Tim Cavanaugh was raked over the coals. “Dumbest thing you’ll read today,” tweeted Politico’s Dylan Beers. Washington Post blogger Alexandra Petri whined, “It’s a little grotesque to claim her for your team like this.” And Wonkette wrote mockingly, “When you think of Maya Angelou, the first thing you think of is her dedication to the Second Amendment.”

Yet maybe these political-pundits-turned-literary-geniuses should dust off and pick up once again their old copies of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. If they do, they might want to turn to chapter 19, “Champion of the World,” in which Dr. Angelou places the reader in a Southern black community on the night in 1938 that Joe Louis knocked out Max Schmeling to win boxing’s top title. In her vivid depiction of the joy of her family and neighbors after the fight, Dr. Angelou noted that many made arrangements to stay in town until morning.

She recalled, “It wouldn’t be fit for a Black man and his family to be caught on a lonely country road on a night when Joe Louis had proved that we were the strongest people in the world.” Is it really that much of a leap of logic to believe that someone with those memories of the Jim Crow South just might want to have a few guns around her home because she doesn’t have full confidence in the police to protect her?!

For Dr. Angelou and Mr. Jeffries, the significance of defending against “home invasions” from outside forces — be it burglars or a government using its eminent domain power — cannot be overstated. Property ownership has long been a point of pride for many individuals overcoming obstacles.

Dr. Angelou acquired an 18-room showplace in Winston-Salem, N.C., and two townhouses in Harlem, one of which she rented. “Her 12-room town house, which she gutted and restored four years ago, is filled with art she collected in Africa and works by African-American artists,” noted a profile in USA Today. Dawn Reiss recalls in The Atlantic that Dr. Angelou had a wine cellar with five cases of chardonnay.

Of course, according to a recent bestseller, there’s no such thing as meritocracy, and all property ownership creates an unjustified inequality. “Every fortune is partially justified yet potentially excessive,” says the French economist in the oft-quoted book. But one would imagine that even Thomas Piketty would have a hard time making the case for subjecting Dr. Angelou’s descendants to his proposed confiscatory “wealth tax.”

I have no idea of their net worths, but Maya Angelou and Herb Jeffries each led uniquely prosperous lives. And securing the freedom of individuals in all fields to harness their skills and ingenuity is why, as an organization, we fight.

Note: Check  out Maya Angelou singing  and dancing calypso in the 1950s and recently discussing with ABC’s Robin Roberts her love of cooking and country music. Hear the smooth voice of Herb Jeffries singing “Smile” in his 60s and “Texas to a T” in his 80s.