Today heartens us that the arc of history can, indeed, bend toward justice. Just this morning the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed that all Americans have the same right to get married—no matter whom they prefer to wed. And this was but one of several recent decisions that further justice and equality—that endorse the interests of our nation’s most marginalized citizens.
Still, as we rejoice this incredible moment in our nation’s history, we must think hard about when and why the arc of history bends and, most importantly, in which direction. While it is true that the arc of history can bend toward justice, it does not do so inevitably, nor nearly often enough. And, of course, it can bend back.
In 1957, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against segregation in the Brown decision, but, earlier, it had ruled for this same vile practice in Plessy (1896). Then, in 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court once again endorsed segregation over integration in two extremely important cases Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education.
So, as we celebrate this extraordinary week of justice—and are reminded of the power of people to change the course of history–let us not forget the lessons of the past. No right, not even one granted by the highest court in the land, is secure unless people, ordinary people, keep pushing the arc of history in the direction of justice rather than injustice.
Indeed it is only when people demand equality that the Supreme Court can affirm that equality. And if people fall silent, that same court can decide differently.