The PBS American Experience program will air The Abolitionists next week to focus on a small group of people whose very ideas made them the object of ridicule and even physical assault merely because they believed slavery wrong. This was despite the fact they were entirely non-violent and lawful in their conduct.
In Mukwonago a single solitary man stood almost totally alone against a unit of government and a whole community because he believed that the school he attended had a nickname and logo that unjustly racially stereotyped his people and knew in his gut it was harmful.
Teachers in more than one school district in Wisconsin stood with those wishing to end racially discriminatory nicknames and logos and mascots used by some schools and have been ostracized and received extensive push-back for their simply standing up for what is morally right.
In Montgomery, Alabama nearly half a century ago a single woman of great dignity refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus and helped spur an entire movement.
At Ole’ Miss in 1962 a single man who simply wished to attend his home state’s best university had to be guarded by over 400 U.S. Marshalls simply to be permitted to come on campus to register for classes at the risk of his very life. Once admitted, he walked a lonely road by himself to get his education with only a solitary soldier to guard him as a companion.
In 1874, a woman went to a polling place and cast a vote in violation of Federal election law standing on her right to be considered a full citizen. She said in open court: “resistance to tyranny is obedience to God. “ American society regarded her as a pariah.
A Baptist minister led an illegal march in Birmingham, Alabama and was promptly jailed there. He was utterly alone and cut off from the movement he led for many hours and wrote a letter to those who failed to see he stood for justice for the oppressed via non-violence as Jesus had.
A socialist labor leader simply expressed his opposition to a war he felt was morally wrong in a speech in Ohio in 1918 and then was sent to a Federal penitentiary merely for what he said. From there, he received almost a million votes for President in 1920 and was pardoned by President Woodrow Wilson.
A labor organizer was framed for robbing a grocery store out West in a mining town and sentenced to death. From his lonely prison cell he gathered the strength to tell his Union brothers and sisters “Don’t mourn, organize.” His ashes now recovered were spread everywhere working people stand up to corporate greed so he is there.
A writer friend of mine sent along a reference to an article she wrote on line regarding the writer and philosopher and human repository for the liberal arts Susan Sontag. Sontag made a speech On Courage and Resistance at a marking of the death of Oscar Romeo known as the Oscar Romeo Award Keynote Address in March of 2003 shortly before her death.
“But courage, certain kinds of courage, can also isolate the brave,” said Sontag that day.
She went on to comment on this at greater length regarding the application of moral principle to a societal problem where injustice and oppression are present and the larger society does not want to deal with the situation.
“Generally a moral principle is something that puts one at variance with accepted practice. And that variance has consequences, sometimes unpleasant consequences as the community takes its revenge on those who challenge its contradictions—who want a society actually to uphold the principles it professes to defend.
The standard that a society should actually embody its own professed principles is a utopian one. In the sense that moral principles contradict the way things really are—and always will be—is neither all evil nor all good but deficient, inconsistent, inferior. Principles invite us to do something about the morass of contradictions in which we function morally. Principles invite us to clean up our act, to become intolerant of moral laxity and compromise and cowardice and the turning away from what is upsetting: that secret gnawing of the heart that tells us that what we are doing is not right, and so counsels us that we’d be better off just not thinking about it.
The cry of the unprincipled: ‘I’m doing the best I can.’ The best given the circumstances of course.”
So if you simply cannot in good conscience do something that violates the moral center of your very soul and you rise in opposition to the societal norm you are going to get smacked down hard by legal authority and the public at large. Even your friends and relatives may not understand.
I’ve said in these many cyberspace pages that being an advocate for social and economic justice in our world is hard, lonely work. I stood up and have stood up several times now. I’ve not done anything yet for the history books but even my puny efforts have not gone unpunished in a myriad of ways.
We ought to tell fighters for justice for the oppressed of our world that they are going to really get it and it will not be a pleasant experience. That we will all be torn down emotionally and psychologically but eventually we will be rebuilt hard and battle tested for the struggles ahead.
Sontag does touch upon claims of varying sides in the world’s great disputes where everybody claims to be acting out of a morally right position. You can justify never-ending war she said way back in 2003 this way.
For me Dr. King’s definition of just and unjust laws is a good guide. If what we are doing uplifts human personality, we are doing what is right. If what we are doing we know degrades human personality with that secret gnawing of the heart Sontag speaks of we’d better know we are on the wrong side of history and the morally centered life.
So if we sign up to do what is right in the face of injustice and the indifference of society we will not be rewarded for what we do by that society. No, those in authority and the public will punish us and ridicule us. We’ll be put out there on some kind of societal island—isolated, totally vulnerable and exposed.
For those of faith, a higher power holds distinct rewards for the righteous. For those with simply a good set of ethical behavior and an altruism that cannot be denied we cosmically know that what we do no matter how small a stand for what is right will reverberate somewhere in the universe and especially our world for good—eventually.
Though unpleasant and harsh, standing up alone or in small numbers for justice is preferable to always having to endure that secret gnawing of the heart where our moral principles are compromised. And standing up for justice does not mean we don’t compromise when others join with us to try and solve a problem.
As for me, I’m going to watch The Abolitionists and be reminded that doing what is right and standing up for moral principle that society proclaims but sidesteps the moment it is inconvenient is going to be hard. It is going to hurt. It is going to be work. It is going to be lonely. We will have our own version of the last night of Christ at the Mount of Olives before his betrayal not wanting to take that bitter cup.
But doing good and what is right and moral carries with it certain longer-term satisfactions that only accrue to us after we have suffered so. Thank you Susan Sontag for reminding us about the importance and the costs of resistance and moral courage.
Dr. Thomas Martin Sobottke
For Struggles for Justice