January 24, 2017
On Justice: The Fragility of Progress
This may sound ridiculously simplistic, but injustice is vital to resist. I’ve seen many folks on social media responding to organized protest by saying, “What’s all the whining about? Things look pretty good to me.” For these people things are pretty good. But, if you’ll pardon me for again stating the obvious, they fail to demonstrate empathy or compassion with such an assessment. “Things are good for me; therefore things are good.”
Such thinking is not new; it has been the anchor for many conservative attitudes since the term was first applied politically. And I don’t use the word “conservative” to alienate or attack anyone—I use it for its definition as it applies to politics: “disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change.” That’s the essence of conservatism.
The US has seen tremendous progress in civil rights and equality in the past 70 years—which is change and therefore by definition not conservative. But I don’t want to get too hung up on semantics. I’ve got justice on my mind.
We often hear warnings, from all sides, that certain political movements or comments harken to the early years of Nazism in Germany or fascism in Italy. At times these comparisons are legitimate and certainly we need be vigilant about not allowing such events to reoccur. But I think we might benefit more by looking first to the history of our own nation and the ways that “justice” has been applied in our own recent past.
The following is an example of way things used to be, with text borrowed from the NY Times and History.com:
On January 24, 1956, Look magazine published the confessions of J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, two white men from Mississippi who were acquitted in the 1955 kidnapping and murder of 14-year old Emmett Louis Till, an African-American teenager from Chicago.
In the trial, the prosecution mounted an excellent case and went after the defendants with surprising vigor; the judge was eminently fair, refusing to allow race to become an issue in the proceedings, at least overtly. Nevertheless, the jury, 12 white men, acquitted the defendants after deliberating for just 67 minutes — and only that long, one of them said afterward, because they stopped to have a soda pop in order to stretch things out and “make it look good.”
Less than a year later, in the Look article, titled “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi,” the men detailed how they beat Till with a gun, shot him and threw his body in the Tallahatchie River with a heavy cotton-gin fan attached with barbed wire to his neck to weigh him down. The two killers were paid a reported $4,000 for their participation in the article.
Till’s murder was considered vigilante justice, by the killers and reaffirmed by the legal system, for allegedly wolf-whistling at a white woman.
This is an extreme example, but far from an isolated one. An hour of research will show hundreds of such instances of legal and vigilante injustice—and not just in the South. Look up the Chicago Race riot that started on July 27, 1919, when an African-American teenager drowned in Lake Michigan after violating the segregation of Chicago’s beaches and being stoned by a group of white youths. Or look up the history of racism against Mexican Americans in California since that territory was violently absorbed into the US under Manifest Destiny—the popularly held belief that God intended the US to extend from coast to coast. Later God would decide the US needed islands in the Caribbean and the Pacific, too. The inhabitants of those islands were likewise treated as inferior races. And where to even begin on the subject of the legally mandated genocide of the Native Americans? Given the time, I could literally list hundreds of thousands of instances of injustices big and small.
This past weekend the “Stop your whining. Things are good for me; therefore things are good” mentality was shouted in response to the Women’s Marches. I started this piece on Emmett Till because the anniversary of his killers’ proud confession—the men who were acquitted in court— caught my attention. But the history of women’s rights is just as appalling and the progress just as slow. If your first response is that racial violence and lynching etc. hardly compare to women being denied equal pay or the right to vote, then you are failing to look beyond the surface.
Civil injustices and violence against women, physical and otherwise, have been by the social and legal systems have allowed and therefore encouraged for … well, pretty much forever as we know it. And beyond that, the substance of feminism and the women’s movement is extremely complex, from the individual home to the world community and all in between.
One of the positive results of the horrors of the world war that “officially” ended in 1945 is that people in the United States began to take a much more active interest in civil and equal rights. When young Mr. Till was brutally murdered in 1955 and his murderers were allowed to gloat to the press of their achievement, it was not an extraordinary occurrence in US history. Not a daily occurrence perhaps, but not extraordinary. Yet that event and others just as profound were like gusts of wind on the hot coals. People—of all races and regions—began to leave their houses and say to their neighbors, “No more.”
The struggles of people to not only say “enough” but to literally put themselves in the position to be jailed, beaten, and killed in the name of freedom and equality in the US has its roots in the very founding of the country and have continued through to the present day. Yet for all of the visible examples of sexism, racism, religious persecution and other glaring injustices, we as a nation have seen remarkable progress. But by its nature such progress is, and must be, an ongoing process.
The reason why people marched in protest on inauguration day, the reason why the Black Lives Matter movement took hold, the reason why the LGBT community has been demanding rights that were declared inalienable in 1776, the reason why freedom of religion continues to be demanded—the reason for ongoing action designed to nourish genuine justice and total equality among our citizens—is because history tells us that it can all go away. All of the progress, like a beautiful handwoven carpet that we have been working on for centuries, can be undone by the pulling of a single thread. In the eyes of many, we have just elected a president—or a man has been elected president—who is fondling that thread.