Jerome Christenson writes Op-eds for the Winona Daily News and La Crosse Tribune but the papers put them places other than the opinion section. Recently, he helped us better understand one of our least favorite quotes. Read the whole thing. We did. Jerome wrote:
“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” Martin Luther King famously observed, and events and attitudes indicate him to be right.
As a theory, Dr. King’s statement is problematic because we don’t have any timeframe. It took humans centuries to get to the Magna Carta. Since WWII results are mixed. Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela, to name only a few, have bent the wrong way while Germany and Japan are notable successes. What Jerome gets right is that the United States has been one of those successes:
But change was afoot. In the space of a short lifetime, we went from Jim Crow to Barack Obama – from a rigidly segregated military force to an African-American commander-in-chief.
Jerome is our age so we don’t think of it as a short life time and we are going to add segregated baseball but otherwise he is on point. The United States has continued to make great strides forward in liberty in the last century. Where we disagree is on the cause of those strides. Jerome seems to buy into the discredited 1619 Project and might be confused about dates.
Let’s not minimize the depth of the racial divide challenging each and every one of us. Four hundred years ago, Africans were brought here as property and designated by the framers of the Constitution as being 3/5 of a human being – the former declaration of all men being created equal notwithstanding. [Emphasis added]
The Declaration and the Constitution set the framework for people to act but they are much more recent than four hundred years ago. Freedom was rare and always limited at the time of the American founding. Slavery was not. Freedom is now more common and sometimes more complete now but it is far from ubiquitous and slavery is still too common. We would argue that it is people rather than an arc. The American Founders improved freedom in the US and encouraged the world. The Founding wasn’t perfect, immediate, or everywhere. Wikipedia confirms that Harry Truman desegregated the US armed forces:
In 1948, [Harry] submitted the first comprehensive civil rights legislation and issued Executive Order 9981 to start racial integration in the military and federal agencies.
Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson, and Pee Wee Reese led the successful breaching of MLB’s color barrier a year earlier.
Double Sidebar: We are not concerned that Branch, Jackie and Pee Wee all profited from their actions. Capitalism, with its emphasis on voluntary actions rather than coerced ones, often, but unfortunately not always, leads to this happy state of affairs.
Pee Wee was a minor actor compared to Branch and Jackie in the integration of MLB. We point him out because minor actors are important too. And it helps explain why a lifetime .269 hitter is in the Baseball Hall Of Fame. End Double Sidebar.
Dr. King led the struggle to continue to desegregate the United States. People make decisions and those decisions matter. The framework matters too. The Declaration and the Constitution are gifts from the Founders to folks seeking freedom. Dr. King connected with the Declaration. On the other hand, we are reading Joseph Kanon’s The Good German. It isn’t a great novel but it does make a great point that during Hitler’s regime “ordinary” Germans often had extraordinarily difficult choices.
We don’t see that the moral universe is an actor. We are the actors that choose to increase or decrease political and economic freedom. Of course, when folks want to reduce your political freedom they say that they want to do something like stop hate speech. And when they want to reduce your economic freedom they will say it is to give you security.
The direction towards or away from freedom is, at least in part, up to us. The Founders gave the framework for freedom. Amendments have improved it. Leadership matters. We think Dr. King was being humble when he said that impersonal forces moved America towards justice. He made a big positive impact on justice in America. We can too.