by Geoffrey R. Stone, Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago
*This post originally appeared in Huffington Post.
In a radio address to America in 1931, George Bernard Shaw startled his audience with the following proposition: “Every person who owes his life to civilized society, and who has enjoyed . . . its very costly protections and advantages, should appear at reasonable intervals before a properly qualified jury to justify his existence,” which, Shaw added, should be “summarily and painlessly terminated if he fails to justify it.”
I do not advocate such a program. But every one of us who enjoys the hard-bought protections and advantages of our system of self-governance has a responsibility to justify his or her existence under it. Abner J. Mikva, who passed away on the Fourth of July at the age of 90, would clearly have passed this test with flying colors.
The Hon. Abner J. Mikva grew up in Milwaukee during the Depression. After serving as a navigator in World War II, he attended college and then entered the University of Chicago as a law student in 1948.
In his application for admission to law school, Ab declared: “I am fired up with an ambition and a desire to do well in a field of endeavor in which I can apply my reasoning powers as well as the formal education I have acquired. The logical answer is law.” Ab emphasized, however, that although “my plans for applying the training of law are not yet crystallized, I have a desire to enter public service.”
Inspired by the idealism of Democratic reform candidates Adlai Stevenson and Paul Douglas, who were running for Governor and Senator respectively in Illinois in 1948, Ab, a first-year law student, decided to volunteer to do some election work in Chicago’s 8th Ward. This led to an exchange with a ward committeeman that demonstrated the conflicting worlds of an entrenched political organization and an idealistic young liberal:
“Who sent you?” asked the committeeman.
“We don’t want nobody nobody sent. We ain’t got no jobs.”
“I don’t want a job,” said Ab.
“We don’t want nobody that don’t want a job. Where are you from anyway?”
“University of Chicago.”
“We don’t want nobody from the University of Chicago in this organization.”