Second Thoughts on MLK Day

I wrote a post on Monday about how it feels to see Dr. King’s words, ideas, hopes, and dreams become so trite and meaningless in today’s world.

This isn’t titled “second thoughts” because I’ve changed my mind. That sense of mourning, of lamentation, is still present in my thoughts when I think of Dr. King.

But, something occurred to me after writing the post on Monday. It’s something that Dr. King said, something that’s so powerful, but that tends to get lost in the litany of inspirational quotes.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

After a little bit of research, I found that this quote is not original to Dr. King (nor did he claim authorship.) The context in which he placed the quote bears repeating.

Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross, but that same Christ arose and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name. Yes, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” There is something in the universe which justifies William Cullen Bryant in saying, “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.”

Dr. King wrote those words in an article in 1958. He would be assassinated only 10 years later.

Did he believe those ideas as he struggled on through the next decade? Did he hold onto the hope that all things would eventually resolve into justice? As he and his friends and followers were beaten, imprisoned, defamed, and murdered, did he believe that “truth crushed to earth will rise again?”

I don’t know for certain that he held onto his hope, his faith, his optimism. But, a speech that he delivered shortly before his death suggests it.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

He gave that speech the night before his death.

So, if Dr. King could believe, after a decade of abuse and struggle, that progress would continue, that the arc of the moral universe really would bend towards justice, then a man as privileged as I am can believe the same.

Frustration has its place. Mourning and lamentation have their place. But, after all has passed away, faith, hope and love remain.

We live in such amazing times. Even though our times are sometime dark, there are thousands upon thousands of bright lights. We have groups like Black Lives Matter, who are willing to continue crying in the wilderness, regardless of the voices raised against them. We have ministers, actors, comedians, and all kinds of public figures who use their fame and fortunes as a platform to bring attention to injustice. We have a President who continues to eloquently and boldly speak to our national sins of racism and injustice.

And, we have millions of individuals on social media who are educating, advocating, and demanding that this generation be the last one to see the evils of racism and injustice in our country.

So, I’m more hopeful today than I was on Monday. Because, no matter how complacent we have become in America, we are still the Sleeping Giant that can be awakened to justice. We are still capable of progress.

But, I need to temper my optimism, my hope, with a little bit of a warning. I mentioned that the “arc of the moral universe” quote did not originate with Dr. King. The quote came from a Unitarian minister named Theodore Parker. He was a 19th century Transcendentalist and abolitionist. In 1853, a book was published of 10 of his sermons. The third sermon, titled “Of Justice and the Conscience”, contains this passage:

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. But from what I see, I am sure it bends towards 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.

We must not be complacent for long. We must remember that God is just.


Michael Brian Woywood