On April 4, 2008, Senator Barack Obama, speaking on the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, declared:
"Dr. King once said that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. It bends towards justice, but here is the thing: it does not bend on its own. It bends because each of us in our own ways put our hand on that arc and we bend it in the direction of justice...."
It is fitting that we remember Dr. King by considering this favorite phrase of his and President-Elect Obama's and its place in our nation's history. These words evoke mystic chords of memory, stretching back to the dawn of the American revolution and foreseeing the promise of tomorrow.
In 1961, Dr. King used these words when he explained his principles of nonviolence. On March 31, 1968, only four days before his assassination, he used these same words in the National Cathedral when he gave what would be his last sermon. He employed this phrase many times, before many audiences.
Perhaps the most powerful occasion when Dr. King used these words came during the marches from Selma to Montgomery. On March 7, 1965, more than 500 marchers began walking east of Selma on U.S. 80 towards Montgomery. They made it only six blocks to the Edmund Pettus bridge where Alabama State troopers and local police attacked them with billy clubs and tear gas, turning back the marchers and sending 17 to the hospital.
On March 9, 1965, Dr. King led a second symbolic march to Edmund Pettus bridge. That evening segregationists beat three ministers who had joined the march. Selma's public hospital refused to treat Rev. James Reeb, an Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston, who had to be driven two hours to Birmingham where he died two days later.
Two weeks after Bloody Sunday, Dr. King assured a gathering of organizers, activists and community members that they should not despair because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
On March 25, 1965, having completed the third march to Montgomery, the city that gave birth to the civil rights movement, Dr. King spoke these words on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol:
"I know you are asking today, "How long will it take?"....
"I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth crushed to earth will rise again.
"How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever.
"How long? Not long, because you shall reap what you sow....
"How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
Dr. King's words echothose of the 19th-century Unitarian minister Theodore Parker. In his 1853 sermon on "Justice and the Conscience," Parker declared:
"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."
In borrowing from Parker, Dr. King drew inspiration from a source that reaches back to our nation's birth.
Theodore Parker was born in Lexington, Massachusetts in 1810. His grandfather, John Parker, commanded the Minute Men at the Battle of Lexington. As an adult, Theodore Parker hung on the wall of the library in his house in Boston the musket his grandfather had fired at the start of the revolutionary war.
An abolitionist, Parker secretly raised money for John Brown's assault on Harper's Ferry and sheltered runaway slaves, even writing some sermons with a loaded pistol at his desk to protect the fugitives in his care.
The arc of the moral universe is long. When Parker first spoke of the arc of the moral universe bending towards justice 155 years ago, he did so to share a dream of a nation that few then held. When Dr. King echoed these words four decades ago, he did so to comfort and encourage those who were dedicated to making that dream a reality. When Senator Obama used these same words, he did so as a call to action to perfect that nation.
And when President Obama may speak tomorrow and in coming years of bending the arc of the moral universe towards justice, let us remember that the inspiration for those words flows in a real sense from the birth of our nation.