A century ago, the arc of the universe that always bends toward justice touched core values of the Republic with the ratification of the 19th Amendment (1920). Ratification came less than three months before the Nov. 2 election. It was grand day to celebrate a triumph of justice, liberty, and rights. Women celebrating their new-found freedom in the voting booth were the descendants of a previous generation of women who fought for the end of slavery, only to have their shackles of being disenfranchised tightened. From 1868 until 1920 women citizens of the Republic chaffed under the bonds of electoral injustice.
When women secured the vote in 1920, clouds of injustice had, again, formed in the South. In 1890 — only a dozen years after the ratification of the 14th Amendment — the Louisiana General Assembly passed a law prohibiting blacks and whites to travel together in the same conveyance. Two years later, Homer Plessy, an octoroon, broke the law when he refused to sit in a railroad car designated for “coloreds.”
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Plessy’s legal challenge came before New Orleans Judge John Ferguson who ruled that Plessy’s rights were not compromised because the railroad company’s “separate but equal” railroad cars for different races. Plessy made an appeal that made it to the United States Supreme Court as Plessy v. Ferguson. In 1896 the high court also ruled against Plessy, effectively making separate but equal the law of the land.
The era of Jim Crow went full throat and spread throughout the nation. By mid-20th century, clouds of injustice continued to threaten.
Two world wars were fought, both enlisting black soldiers, but keeping them separate from whites as they served the same nation. During that stretch, America grew more dependent upon women in the workforce as the men marched off to wars. When Johnny came marching home, Rosie was not too eager to give up the freedom and power of earning wages and making more decisions.
As the economy boomed after the Korean War, the birth pangs of new freedoms caused our nation to shudder. African Americans grew weary of separate and unequal. In 1954 the Supreme Court, after three years of litigation of a case from Topeka, Kansas, overturned Plessy v. Ferguson.
The focus of the application of the ruling was in Little Rock, Arkansas. President Dwight Eisenhower sent federal troops to Arkansas to secure the entry of Elizabeth Eckford into Central High School on Sept. 4, 1957; she was one of nine students who were poised to integrate the school, but her family’s lack of telephone prevented her from knowing the date had been changed to Sept. 5.
Little Rock demonstrated that the Constitution and its amendments provide a broader foundation for liberty, justice, and rights than ideologies and practices designed to exclude people. Also, Little Rock became a symbol for the hope that the arc of the universe does, indeed, bend toward justice.
After Little Rock the arc of the universe bending toward justice appeared more focused. Over the following decades, the Civil Rights Movement matured. Then, the Women’s Rights Movement regained steam, despite the apparent failure of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982.
In the 1990s, efforts to address discrimination based upon sexual orientation began to advance, however slowly. In 1994 the now infamous “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) policy of the military lurched toward justice. In 2011 DADT was repealed, allowing U.S. military personnel to cease dissembling their identities.
The most-recent front for the struggle for justice has been same-sex marriage. According to the Pew Research Center (for Religion and Public Policy) report of June 26, 2017, 62 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage, while self-identifying Christians are opposed to same-sex marriage.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was clear and prophetic in his 1963 “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” when he wrote: “So here we are moving toward the exit of the twentieth century with a religious community largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a tail-light behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading men to higher levels of justice.”
The arc of the universe is wide, but it bends toward justice.
As a society, we will continue to struggle with the demands of justice.
In the end we will say:
Liberty and justice for all, regardless of race.
Liberty and justice for all, regardless of gender.
Liberty and justice for all, regardless of whom we love.
Richard F. Wilson is the Columbus Roberts professor of Christianity, and chair of the Columbus Roberts Department of Religion at Mercer University.