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Fair is fair: The virtue of justice

   The moral arc of the universe bends at the elbow of justice. -Martin Luther King, Jr.  Do you know the name James Blake?  Neither did I before writing this book.  But we all should, and be grateful for his contribution to society.  Because without James Blake, Alabama bus driver and strict adherent to the racial segregation codes of the day, the world would never have met Rosa Parks.  Mr. Blake, you see, was the man who ordered Mrs. Parks to give up her seat on his bus so that a white man might sit, and in so doing gave justice a chance to shine.  December 1, 1955 was a cold day in Montgomery, and Parks was tired from a long day of ironing and stitching shirts for a department store.  And in her exhaustion and dignity she uttered that very dangerous word, “No.”  Blake threatened to have her arrested, but it made no difference to her.  She’d paid for her ticket, she was seated in the section of the bus where blacks were told to sit, and she’d had enough.           Later, when asked why she didn’t just give up her seat, she explained, “I would have to know for once and for all what rights I had as a human being and a citizen."  What does it mean to be human and to be a citizen?  This Civil Rights movement hero, this American hero, asked the fundamental question that frames the virtue of justice. Justice is about giving to others what is their due.  It is the virtue that uniquely establishes the relationship between self and others.  Justice points to the “inalienable rights” all human beings carry with them;  rights that are hopefully supported by the laws of the land, but are ultimately deeper and more authoritative than anything that could be legislated.  Because they are grounded in Natural Law.  A sense of justice is part of the very essence of human beings, and as a virtue it guides the legitimate search for fairness, equality, and best use of power.  Justice is about what’s right, not just what’s accepted.  Justice safeguards human dignity.  In fact to violate it is to do soul-damage to one’s self.  Socrates wrote that those who are unjust should be “pitied.”  It is unnatural to be unjust, thus unjust acts make both practitioners and societies sick.  Although he acted within the law, and was supported by the law, James Blake violated the virtue of justice---what was essentially due Parks as a human being; deeper than any human law, deeper than any cultural context or societal norm, deeper than a political position.  I wonder if James Blake was changed by his encounter with justice on that December day in 1955, and his invitation to become more fully human.  He worked for 19 more years as a bus driver, and lived until 2002.  That’s a lot of time to reflect.  When asked about the incident his standard reply remained, “I wasn't trying to do anything to that Parks woman except do my job…I had my orders.” Justice demands more than that.

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