You may have heard the following quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” You may also know that King was quoting 19th century Unitarian Theodore Parker. Or at least that’s what I used to think. It turns out that he was paraphrasing Parker, not quoting him.
Parker spoke the following words in 1853, three years after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act—which he would later openly defy. He was deeply ensconced in the abolitionist movement. He said, “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.” I have always loved King’s words, but I find a different depth of meaning and nuance in Parker’s version.
They both suggest that we must have faith—we must trust that although we cannot see the complete picture, we can see enough to believe that the trend is to the good. It’s not an easy thing to see sometimes. And yet, we trust that arc! King said it a different way, the night before he was killed, “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.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a visionary, a martyr and a standard bearer for the American Civil Rights movement. His rousing speeches and rhetoric continue to inspire generations of the world’s citizens. We honor his memory today, and we carry forward his vision of a better world. But King did not work alone. Countless people, some who heard his message, and some who came before his time—held the hope of a better world and dedicated their lives to working for justice.
Countless people, like Unitarian writer, suffragist and pacifist Mary White Ovington, who was inspired by Frederick Douglass and went on to co-found the NAACP.
Countless people, like Unitarian novelist and abolitionist Lydia Maria Child, who believed that women’s rights and the abolition of slavery were linked and dedicated her life to both causes.
Countless people, like Fairfax Unitarian Universalist lawyer and school board member Bill Perlik, who fought tirelessly for the desegregation of Fairfax County schools, which was finally achieved in 1960.
And there are so many more people, named and unnamed, who populate the historical record of that “moral arc.” Countless people, some in this very room, perhaps, who have contributed to the common good, or who will grow up to be a new visionary leader.
How are you working to bend the arc?
Who will be the next visionary leader?