Will you be on the right side of history?

Published 12:07 pm Tuesday, March 30, 2010

With each passing decade we know more. With that knowledge and understanding comes the responsibility to update our laws, to keep them arcing with the times in which we live. We are now living in the age of information, meaning we learn more and do so at unparalleled rates. Are you willing to be left behind, holding on to antiquated beliefs, usurped by history?

Pretend for a moment you were alive during America’s declaration of its independence from Britain. Leaving the mother country? Such a thought was considered radical and rebellious and foolhardy. But a few progressive souls pushed on, saying it was the right things to do.

Had you been alive then would you have been on the right side of history?

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Pretend you were alive when the claws of slavery embedded their deep nails into our country’s history. So clearly now a pock on our county’s complexion, slavery was long considered not only acceptable but a human right. Four of the first five presidents owned slaves while in office, as preposterous as that sounds. It was “normal” behavior. Yet now it’s so clearly wrong.

Had you lived during the time period when slavery was as common as owning a dishwasher, would you have owned slaves? Or would you have been on the right side of history?

In the mid-1800s divorce was rare. Few people will argue divorce is a good thing, but in the case of an abusive or unhealthy situation it may be necessary. Yet 150 years ago a woman’s option to escape a bad situation barely existed.

Thanks to some poorly behaved women leading the suffrage charge, all that changed. I believe in the power of the U.S. Constitution, especially its ability to be amended when portions of it become outdated or ineffective. The constitution needed updating in the mid-1800s for numerous reasons, among them women’s rights, but had it not been for the likes of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Sojourner Truth and their disinterest in the status quo, the 19th amendment may have been even longer in coming than 1920. Seriously. 1920. Disgusting that it took that long.

Would you have been on the right side of the women’s suffrage fight in 1920? Or 1885? Or 1850, the year the first National Women’s Rights Convention was held?

This weekend I visited the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. I learned that Jackie Robinson was nowhere near the best black baseball player in 1947, the year the Brooklyn Dodgers called him up from the minor leagues. He was a football player. He was chosen because he was the best candidate to make history: college educated, military service, family man, good looking.

Would you have been on the right side of history? Or would you have been one of the holdouts, dreading the day barely 50 years ago when baseball was, at long last, fully integrated?

Prior to the passage of the Fair Labor Standard Act in 1938 child labor was the preferred labor by many industries. The theory was children were easier to train and could be paid less. Certainly some of the barons of industry were seen as fine, upstanding people, possibly people with whom you’d want to associate yourself today. But had you been a friend or associate, would you have said anything to them about having children working for their companies all hours of the day?

Would you have been on the right side of that 1938 historical legislation regulating children in the work force? Or would you have kept quiet, taking the side of industry over children? You wouldn’t have been alone if you had.

Would you have backed Joseph McCarthy, the junior senator from Wisconsin in the 1950s, who led the witch hunt of innocent people with unsubstantiated claims of their ties to communism? Or would you have been on the right side of history?

Being on the right side of historic battles — in the moment, not a century later — is hard to do. It takes visionaries to lead, those who know what’s best for the masses when the masses don’t yet know what’s best for them.

Only in recent years have women become religious leaders, and in some churches the practice is still banned or looked down upon.

In that situation, are you on the ride side of history?

Environmental issues, such as the melting of the polar ice caps and drilling for oil in preserved lands, are testy topics, and while the precise answers are slow in coming (like so many notable pieces of history) we’ll know soon.

But when that day comes, and the answers are clear and widely agree upon, will you be on the right side of history?

Last week Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has served in the position under both political parties, said, according to CNN, the Pentagon will move toward repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Will you be on the right side of history?

Like public libraries, public schools and many other socially accepted government programs that are positives available to all, health care for all is no longer the future. It is the present, and someday it will appear in history books, alongside suffrage, civil rights and McCarthyism.

Will you have been on the ride side of history when that happens?

Albert Lea resident Riley Worth’s column appears every other Tuesday. He can be reached at rileyworth@gmail.com.