Liberty Matters

From Eutopia[1] to the Rule of Just Law

I lived in Eutopia once on a small street of rowhouses off of a main shopping street in West Philadelphia. Our neighbors were African American like us (we were called Negroes then), Jewish, Italian-American, Polish-American, Armenian, Chinese-American, and Hungarian refugees. I went to school with the children of Holocaust survivors, knew people who had escaped from communist countries, and other Black people who had left the American South under threat. We shopped at the Armenian grocery store, steak and hoagie shops, a local pharmacy, a tailor shop, Murray’s Delicatessen, the corner grocery store, and the Five-and-Ten. We walked to school together in the mornings, walked home together for lunch, back to school, and home again in the evenings, carrying on conversations the whole way. Police officers walked the beat up and down 60th Street, and we knew who they were by name.
We played games on our street: jumped double dutch between parked cars with our mothers’ clotheslines, ran from one curb to the other playing dodgeball, played baseball with pink rubber balls that we hit with our hands, running around bases chalked onto the blacktop with concrete that had fallen off the sidewalks. We knew that there were differences among us, but they didn’t seem salient then. We discussed our religions and asked each other questions. On Saturdays, our parents shunted us off to the movie theater around the corner, where we watched the complete works of Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolf Man, scaring ourselves silly across racial and ethnic lines of the time.
If we ventured downtown, which was easy to do on the #42 or the #46 bus, we always gave up our seats to older people if it got crowded. We wandered around the department stores, bought pizza by the slice on Market Street, ate mustard pretzels, relived the founding stories of America at Independence Hall, on the cobblestone streets, at Betsy Ross’s house, on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, while the shadow of William Penn, the most prominent Quaker of Quaker City, was cast down from the top of City Hall. On the Fourth of July, we drove out to picnic at Valley Forge and play in the cabins where Washington’s soldiers nearly froze to death. We absorbed all those stories and developed a love of country, even though those stories seldom included Black people. We latched onto Crispus Attucks as some kind of proof that we were there at the beginning.
There were hardly any Black people on television, and when one appeared, we rejoiced. The same applied to movies; mostly, we projected our own fears and fancies onto the white characters, something we had been doing for years anyway. This was the age of American Bandstand and Motown, of transistor radios, and Sputnik, of schoolyard basketball games, and special programs at the “Y”. We stood on Irving Street and looked up at the sky at night to see if we could catch a glimpse of that satellite as it went overhead. We played air-raid-shelter in the basements and had air-raid drills in our schools, singing B-I-N-G-O as we sat on the floors in the hallways. It was all fun.
I thought the differences among people were coincidental. All that began to change, though, as reality began to encroach on my eutopia, eventually sweeping it away. We watched the Civil Rights movement on television and saw German shepherds nipping at the heels of protestors in Birmingham; drinks being poured over the heads of college students who staged sit-ins at lunch counters; heard about churches being bombed; watched leaders assassinated and their assassins assassinated before our very own television eyes. 
We watched the police in Philly pick up young black men in sweeps through neighborhoods for no particular reason. And one day, long after I had left home, one of those young men on our street was shot to death by a policeman who had a grudge against him. Neighborhood outrage flared, the police officer was exonerated, only the people in that neighborhood aware that anything untoward had happened. That was during the rising tide of the 1960s. Only later would I learn the long and brutal history of blacks in the United States mirrored in that incident. Now television news carries stories of police shootings of black men, made possible by a new technology.
My eutopia had fixed itself in my mind as the way people should live together. I had no way of knowing that it was just a moment in history. That wonderful mix of people disappeared, as each ethnic group moved away into its own residential enclave, and the economic underpinnings of the neighborhood melted away, along with the record shop, the roller skating rink, and Murray’s delicatessen. The now all-black neighborhood managed to maintain itself, but struggled with the harsh realities of police brutality, deteriorating schools, and a business ghost town. The companies that had hired my father and uncles shut down as the U.S. lost its manufacturing edge.
The 1960s and 1970s brought change happening so quickly that even those in favor of it could barely keep up. Along with the various civil rights movements and civil rights legislation came the uncovering of Black history. I never read any Black writers while I was in high school and only a few (enough to count on one hand only) in college. I remember combing the libraries for books about inventors, looking for Black inventors, then for female inventors. There were none. Then, they began to appear in books that the local library carried. Those photographs of my father in his flight gear that had festered in the dining room junk drawer suddenly became important. But even as we discovered the fantastic history of the Tuskegee Airmen, we would learn that Black military pilots had no chance of becoming commercial pilots solely because of their color.
As I delved into more and more history, my eutopian years were cast into a larger perspective. Erec Smith’s examination of James Baldwin’s “tyranny of history” recounts experiences that many of us have gone through (2022). When the facts of history suddenly become known – facts that cannot be changed or victims helped – it does not eliminate the anger that rises with the discovery, and the tendency is to latch onto that anger, as if we could remedy the past or part of a lost identity. As Erec Smith pointed out in his essay, “How Should We Celebrate Black History,” in spite of the trauma-ridden past and all of its difficulties, one way out of this predicament, according to Smith, is to honor the people who, over time, fought to fulfill the promise of a free country. “If Black history is full of people who fought so that Blacks can have a good life, pursuing and acquiring a good life is the strongest way to honor them” (Smith 2022).
But to live a good life, which many more of us do than in the past, the political machinations that constantly seek to reinstate the past of segregation and economic intimidation, so well outlined by Brandon Davis, must be squelched. As he reminds us in his essay, “Out of many: One”: “We have yet to fully defeat the twin pillars of discrimination: segregation and disenfranchisement,” both of which are current concerns (2022). 
And, as Rachel Ferguson also reminds us, “the classical liberal tradition has far more to say about Black American history, our current racial reckoning, and Black flourishing in the future than is generally understood, even among classical liberals themselves” (2022). Classical liberals have often failed to rally around the deeply relevant classical liberal principles when it would have been particularly useful to support the quest of Black Americans for freedom. 
In discussing F.A. Hayek, Ferguson reminded me of the emphasis that Hayek placed on the rule of law, and how that comes up frequently in contemporary news reports. But, as the scholars in this series of essays and elsewhere have pointed out, the rule of law can as easily work against liberty as for it. Black history and American history have demonstrated this again and again. To truly achieve liberty for all, it is necessary to reframe the emphasis to be on the rule of just law, for it is justice that has been missing in much of black history.
The truth is, in spite of all past and present denials, African Americans have been an integral part of American history since August 20, 1619. Now, all that remains is for those facts to be integrated into the national story, and the full promise of the founders extended in the form of unassailable individual rights for all. If we can do that, the rule of just law may just pave the way to American experiences that come close to realizing my Eutopia.
[1] Utopia, generally glossed as an ideal society, has two expressions: eutopia, or the good society; dystopia, a society gone astray to the detriment of its members.
Davis, Brandon. 2022. Out of many: One. Liberty Fund. What Does Liberty Have to Say to Black History. February 2022.
Ferguson, Rachel. 2022. What Do Classical Liberalism and Black History Have to Discuss. Liberty Fund. What Does Liberty Have to Say to Black History. February 2022.
Smith, Erec. 2022. How Should We Celebrate Black History. Liberty Fund. What Does Liberty Have to Say to Black History. February 2022.