Originally published by EmbraceRace on Medium.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Who said that?
If you answered Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., you’d be absolutely right. But was he the first one to say these words?
As it turns out, the 19th-century Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker appears to be the originator. In 1853, Parker wrote:
I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.
Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble.
Parker was a vigorous reformer, publicly advocating disobedience of the Fugitive Slave Law that had undercut the Compromise of 1850. He hid fugitives from slavery in his home and was indicted for it. Parker didn’t just talk the talk; he walked the walk. And though he sadly didn’t live to see the end of slavery in 1865, he lived his life in constant hope and expectation of it.
In 1918, a book titled Readings from Great Authors attributed a sharper and more concise version of the saying to Parker. MLK then incorporated the new version into many of his speeches, including the famous Selma speech in 1965:
How long? Not long. Because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. How long? Not long.
According to Stanford history professor Clayborne Carson, MLK often evoked the words and ideas of 19th-century abolitionists and theologians. Long before America’s 1960s civil rights movement, the antebellum abolitionist struggle was among the most important of our national movements, Carson notes. So it’s not surprising that MLK drew on that intellectual heritage in his own rhetoric.
The point here really isn’t that MLK wasn’t the first to say these words. The point is that the social justice tradition in America stretches back centuries and includes people of every race. I don’t tell my white daughters about Parker because I want them to feel self-satisfied about the role white people have played in our civil rights history.
Rather, I want them to see themselves reflected in Parker, especially because our family is Unitarian Universalist. I want them to understand that we all have a role and we all bear a responsibility as we walk forward to justice. I want them to know that we all have to put our shoulders to the wheel together; that we all have to push hard to get the long arc of the moral universe to bend; and that the struggle for justice, centuries old now, will continue long after we are gone. There is sadness in that, but hope too — and love.
In 2010, President Obama — whom my girls adore — had a new rug installed in the Oval Office. Woven into it are some of BHO’s favorite inspirational quotes, including these words about “bending toward justice.” And so Theodore Parker’s words travel forward, through MLK and to our first African American President. There’s beauty in that. And struggle. And truth.
Let’s make sure all of our kids know about it.