"The arch of history is long, but it bends toward justice." Martin Luther King made that once rather obscure line world famous. It is indeed eloquent, perhaps a little too eloquent. For its sentiments are rather too comforting, inasmuch as they are not true. Would that they were. We would not have the solemn responsibilities bequeathed to us by our common human endowments.
History marches on. But the course is squiggly. The direction is variable. And there is no mystically ordained lean or destination. No, it has to be pulled, and pulled hard, because the enemies of justice are always jerking it over to another track.
Examples of this inconstancy of direction abound in history. There is not just one long road which leads only toward justice. Instead, there are extended stretches of time when all the movement seems permanently progressive, as there are times when everything seems headed irrevocably in reverse. Those are not intrinsic characteristics of our experience, but simply the way in which they come dressed. It is usually the moments of change which most dramatically inform our appreciation of the times in which we live.
Although Lincoln was always personally opposed to the institution of slavery and morally repulsed by it, he was far more temperate on the subject as he campaigned for president, and even after he first was elected. He tried to deflect and defuse the secessionist movement by relying on his legal obligation as President to follow the Constitution, which permitted slave holding in those states wherein it was already the practice. But the press and prosecution of the Civil War, along with the ever growing abolitionist movement and spreading sentiment cleared the path not only for preservation of the Union, but the rapid adoption of the 13th Amendment and the end of slavery everywhere within it.
Similarly, FDR came into office without a significantly different prescription for resurrecting the moribund national economy than that which the Hoover administration had been recommending. Indeed, FDR campaigned as a balanced budget advocate. But by the time he took office, the deepening crisis, together with an avalanche of increasingly serious and sometimes violent protest movements, swung wide the door for new ideas, new approaches, and the New Deal writ large itself.
I will skip over the period of agitation and change of the sixties we all know about, and that was somewhat obliquely referenced in the title to this post. Instead, it is more important to look with eyes wide open at the situation today. We see the transition Obama is making from would-be partner with the predatory powerful back to a promotion of policy initiatives aimed at realizing a desperately needed progressive approach to the problems of the day. We also see the nascent spark of life returning to a left-of-center oriented movement of the type which holds the potential to fuel a turn and ride back in the direction of justice. We should not let it stall or be driven into a ditch.