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You’ve Just Got To Keep Going Back

Daily Stoic Emails

It would be wonderful if the world was naturally just, if people were automatically good, always doing the right thing. But of course, they don’t. It’s one of the most heartbreaking and frustrating things about life. Not only do people often not do the right thing, they will continue in error or evil even after they’ve been challenged, even after you’ve made every argument or followed all the procedures.

Nothing illustrates this more than the fight to end segregation in America, which was more than just marches. It was a series of endless court cases–cases that took years to get picked up, years to get their day in court, years to get the right verdict…and once passed, were then often still ignored by Southern politicians and law enforcement officers.

But the reason the cause eventually prevailed was encapsulated by the legal philosophy of John Doar, who served as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights during the 1960s. “You’ve just got to keep going back,” he would explain. The Southern strategy was one of holding out, of being so difficult, so painful to deal with that, hoping that the North would then do what it had done during Reconstruction, get disheartened and then leave. In the case of James Meredith, the Black man who integrated the University of Mississippi, Doar filed hundreds of motions, sat before multiple judges, appealed and appealed and appealed. He never lost heart, he never gave up (neither did Meredith, it should be said, even after he was shot in the head). “You’ve just got to keep going back,” he said. Just keep going back.

Justice, the most essential of the Stoic virtues, is not just about being right. It’s not just about having the moral high ground. You have to fight for it. You have to seize and command that high ground. Cato knew this–he was dogged in his determination to keep Rome a republic and he wore himself down fighting against every example of corruption, every attempt to bend the rules, every effort by Caesar to take over. Cato didn’t succeed but his example inspired the Founding Fathers many centuries later, just as the words of those Founders were taken up by people like John Doar and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Diane Nash and made real.

Things weren’t perfect. There was incredible resistance. It took longer than it should have. But it wouldn’t have happened at all had they not kept going back, had they not made it happen.