Monday, January 20, 2014

King on Justice

If you ask someone randomly to give you a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the most likely result will be some words sourced from his address to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,* the famous "I Have a Dream" speech.  It is a great speech, one of the greatest in American history.

* - Yes, that's really what it was called.

But King wrote and spoke a lot of words that were equally powerful, to my mind, if not more powerful.  My favorite of them all is a line that he repeated many times in various speeches and writings across his career.  I like it so much because it both carries the weight of a long struggle and hold up hope for a better future.  When the world gets me down, I think on these words, as he framed them in an August 1967 address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, entitled "Where Do We Go From Here?":

I must confess, my friends, the road ahead will not always be smooth. There will be still rocky places of frustration and meandering points of bewilderment. There will be inevitable setbacks here and there. There will be those moments when the buoyancy of hope will be transformed into the fatigue of despair. Our dreams will sometimes be shattered and our ethereal hopes blasted. We may again with tear-drenched eyes have to stand before the bier of some courageous civil rights worker whose life will be snuffed out by the dastardly acts of bloodthirsty mobs. Difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future. ... When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.
King said that last line so many times, in many of his most famous speeches, that it might be considered the central theme of the message of his life. 

But, like those of a lot of good speechwriters, the sentiment was not original.  Great language is often the work of many hands, and great thoughts are often shared among great minds.  More than a hundred years before, in 1853, Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister and prominent abolitionist, gave a sermon he called "Of Justice and the Conscience."  In it, he described the state of the world as he saw it:

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. 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 the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.
Parker was an interesting fellow.  He was one of the great liberals of his time.  He palled around with folks like Ralph Waldo Emerson and other Transcendentalists, Louisa May Alcott (later of Little Women fame), Julia Ward Howe (author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic), and early women's activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  He pastored a "megachurch" with 7,000 members.  As an abolitionist, he led efforts in Boston to resist enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, helped to arm the militias of free states before the civil war, and secretly supported John Brown, regarded by many as a terrorist, in his efforts to overthrow the institution of slavery through armed insurrection.

If I were to add anything at all to the words of King and Parker, it would be this:  That it is the work of good people that causes that arc to bend in the first place.

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