AMONG THE READINGS IN THE POLITICAL ETHICS CLASS TAUGHT BY BARBARA JORDAN at UT-Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs was an essay called “The Conscience of Huckleberry Finn.” The piece focuses on Huck’s moral quandary as he and Jim, a runaway slave whose escape Huck has abetted, raft on the Mississippi River toward freedom. Huck’s conscience begins to bother him. He believes in obeying the law, but he is now violating it. He is doing harm to Jim’s owner, who has done no harm to Huck. He goes ashore with the intention of turning Jim in, but his principles are no match for his feelings. When two white men looking for runaway slaves ask if the man on the distant raft is white or black, Huck can’t bring himself to tell the truth—not out of moral conviction, but just out of weakness of will. His moral principles, he realizes later, were useless.
It is easy to see the lesson that Barbara Jordan could glean from this tale. Huck’s dilemma was caused by his acceptance of the status quo. He had simply absorbed his principles from society, instead of thinking about them. His failure to come to grips with injustice rendered him morally helpless in a crisis.
Barbara Jordan’s conscience was everything that Huck Finn’s was not.