Many in my generation tend to be pretty cynical when it comes to the American Dream, the federal government, and our ability to change anything. If the government and other people would leave us and our paychecks alone, and everyone minded their own business, we’d all be better off, right?

I recently read two titles that reminded me the federal government can be a force for the individual’s and the communities’ good, that Americans really do have more opportunities than many acknowledge, and that justice in this lifetime is not a lost cause.

The first book is Freedom Summer: The 1964 Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi. Author Susan Goldman Rubin recounts the murders of three civil rights workers and the fallout for both a small town and a nation.  Rubin has meticulously researched all her sources and refrains from overgeneralizing or sentimentalizing anything.

The CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) members and host families were incredibly brave and committed to non-violent change. Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner may have been the only members murdered, but every person expected to be harassed, jailed, and abused. Most of them were.

What impressed me is how trapped everyone was in rural, segregated Mississippi. Black people may have been citizens on paper, but very few had the right to vote. Even those who could vote had no expectation of justice. When the local law enforcement officers and Ku Klux Klan members are one and the same, where could they go? Mississippi had not convicted a white person for murdering a black person ever. The Freedom Summer murders became news only because two of the victims were white and their families refused to stop pestering the federal government to investigate.

White people in rural Mississippi were just as trapped. Sympathetic white people knew if they were seen driving with a black person or talking to a white federal agent, they would be the next target. Some did help investigators, giving their statements and pointing out the local KKK members, but others begged them to leave for the investigators’ safety.

I was also struck by how driven the black children, teenagers, and many of the adults were to learn once given the opportunity. They worked together with the volunteers to create Freedom Schools and then focused on learning to read and learning the law. Many of the children are now professors or lawyers. You can read about individual stories here.

The second is Hidden Girl: The True Story of a Modern-Day Child Slave. Shyima Hall recounts her captivity, eventual liberation, and  readjustment to freedom. At eight years old, her Egyptian parents sent her to work for a family of six. She never went to school, never received medical attention when needed, never ate during the day due to her overwhelming work demands, and was repeatedly physically abused.

At twelve years old, agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement rescued Shyima from her owners’ California home and spent the next six years prosecuting her captors and helping Child Protective Services keep her safe.

As in rural Mississippi in the 1960s, everyone in Shyima’s Egypt seems so trapped. Poverty and lack of education keep the lower classes stuck in terrible living conditions. Her parents genuinely believed she was better off as a domestic slave, and I can see their point. If her owners had worked her twelve hours every day instead of eighteen, she would have had a better standard of living.

The Muslim men’s arrogant and pervasive demand for their wives’ and children’ respect while doing nothing to earn it keep the women and girls scared and dependent and teach the boys to be abusive. Shyima carefully notes that she no longer believes Islam itself is the problem, but she offers no examples of good Muslim men – only abusive and/or dictatorial ones.

Once liberated, Shyima spent hours upon hours trying to catch up academically in a completely foreign language. Students who refused to study and work baffled her. They were being offered the opportunity to make a better life for themselves, and they didn’t seem to care.

Shyima worked hard. She graduated high school, became an American, and now supports herself. She took advantage of the opportunities and now speaks to raise awareness about human trafficking.

These books are painful to read, but also incredibly hopeful.  Once given justice and an opportunity, an American CAN improve his/her lot in life with enough drive and determination.

Despite all the problems, despite all the frustrating bureaucracy, despite all the bad politicians, despite large corporations and lobby groups pressuring officials, I’m blessed to be where I am and when I am. May I always be mindful of that and, as a Christian, may I always

  • seek justice,
  • correct oppression;
  • bring justice to the fatherless,
  • plead the widow’s cause.        -Isaiah 1:17

One thought on “Justice and Opportunity

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