“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
- Martin Luther King, Jr.
Throughout our nation’s history, progressive change has come about in large part because activists have worked outside of official channels to create a climate that is more conducive to that change.
Frederick Douglas once observed that “The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle. . . . If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. "
This is a principle as old as the American Republic.
For example, it was in the Treaty of Paris that King George III of Great Britain formally acknowledged the existence of the United States as free, sovereign and independent, but few today would attribute this accomplishment solely to the efforts of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and the other diplomats who directly negotiated the Treaty. Rather, it generally accepted that Britain would never have even come to the negotiating table without the “agitation” of people like Patrick Henry and Thomas Paine (which some of their contemporaries viewed as outrageous), together with the valor of those who risked their lives at Lexington, Concord, Saratoga and Yorktown (which some of their contemporaries viewed as extreme).
From another era, we have the story of Sidney Hillman, who served for a time as head of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union. After helping Franklin Roosevelt get elected in the Presidential campaign of 1932, Hillman is said to have gone to the White House and presented an ambitious agenda of progressive reforms for the new President to adopt. President Roosevelt supposedly replied: “Sidney, I agree with everything in your proposal. It is all exactly right. Now you just go back home and make me do it.” Following the President’s admonition, Hillman proceeded to “make” the President embrace many of his recommendations through a campaign of what Frederick Douglas would have described as “agitation.”
Years later, Martin Luther King, Jr. is said to have had a similar conversation with President Lyndon Johnson. In response to Dr. King’s call for voting rights legislation and for the appointment of more African American officials, President Johnson is said to have challenged Dr. King to essentially “make me do it”. It is doubtful that many of the progressive initiatives sponsored by President Johnson could have been achieved without “agitation” on the part of advocates such as Dr. King and others.
In more recent times, the Plaintiffs in Brooks v. State Board of Elections played a role similar to that of Sidney Hillman and Martin Luther King. They saw that those who were charged with administering justice in the State of Georgia in the 1990s were not representative of the communities that they served, and not representative of the populations whose lives they influenced. With little thought for their own personal needs, they “agitated” through the courts to make Georgia’s justice system more representative, with some measure of success.
More than 30 years after the Brooks litigation, the goal of a representative judiciary remains an elusive one, and progress toward that goal appears to have stalled. There are numerous communities throughout the State of Georgia where persons of color constitute a majority of the population, but in which there have never been any judges of color. Meanwhile, appointing authorities too often appear to have embraced a single-minded focus on filling judicial vacancies only with people who look like they look and think like they think. We are headed toward a closed, stagnant and inbred system in which the quality of justice will inevitably decline.
How are we to reverse this disastrous trend? Only by concerted action on the part of those of us who truly care about the quality of justice.
But concerted action begins with individual resolve. It only takes one person at a time. One person can decide that, sometimes, there are some things in life that are bigger than himself/herself or his/her career. One person can resolve not to give in to apathy, discouragement, distrust, or disappointment. One person can decide that “I’m too busy to fight for this cause” is not an acceptable answer. Each person who stands stand silent, because others are uncomfortable, risks condemning future generations to a judiciary that is not representative of their communities or responsive to their interests.
We are on the precipice of change in our country and in our State. Our populations are becoming more and more diverse and, consequently, more and more open to the reality that they can use their votes to counteract the damage that some of our politicians are doing through the appointment process. In order to take advantage of these developments, it will be necessary for each of us to be that one person, working with others of like mind, fighting for justice, willing to commit himself or herself to speaking up and speaking out about why our courts need to be representative and accountable to the communities they serve. This is, after all, a major element of the “more perfect union” that we all profess to seek.
This is a moral issue, for which we must all stand up in unison.
Can we count on you?
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