Over the holidays, two civil rights leaders died. They lived halfway around the world from each other — one in the United States, the other in South Africa.
Percy Sutton was a civil rights attorney who represented Malcolm X. He was a political and media figure in New York over the decades. When he started his political life in the '50s, the South was still segregated. In the '60s, Sutton was arrested as a freedom rider in Mississippi and Alabama.
Dennis Brutus was also arrested in the '60s. He shared a prison with Nelson Mandela. He spent his life fighting apartheid as a poet and an activist.
Looking back on their lives from our vantage point in 2010, it's easy to see their victories as predestined. Of course, desegregation and the fall of apartheid were a fait accompli. How could society have taken any other course? But in the middle of the last century, these debates were real, intense and heartfelt.
When I was born in the late '70s, civil rights battles were already chapters in textbooks. And even though apartheid still existed when I was a kid, for most of my life there's been consensus about who was on the wrong side of that history. Not just the losing side, but the morally wrong side.
There are issues such as abortion that are as contentious today as ever. But civil rights and apartheid seem different, because in retrospect the right answer is just so obvious. As fiery as the debates in Congress were in the 1960s, many lawmakers who voted against civil rights back then have changed their minds and apologized for those votes.
It's true that just a few months ago, a Louisiana justice of the peace refused to perform interracial marriages because he thought it was bad for the children. Tell that to President Obama, son of a white mother and a black father. So there may not be complete consensus. But it's close.
Now, as we move into a new decade, I look at the fierce, passionate and heartfelt debates of today. And I wonder which issues that we're debating now will seem morally obvious in just a few decades.
Let me say something explicitly: It is easy to interpret this as a veiled argument for some particular policy, whatever your personal favorite might be. And I want to state, point-blank, I am not trying to make a thinly disguised case for immigration, health care, gay marriage, climate change, Afghanistan or anything else that the country is debating today. I am asking a sincere question, and I don't know the answer. I don't think anyone can know the answer.
Which controversies of today will continue to be debated forever? And which, like civil rights and apartheid, will seem morally obvious by the time we're all just a few decades older?