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Bending The Arc

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Fifty years ago today, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Junior gave a seminal speech. This anniversary has been marked today by many, by presidents and by bloggers alike. Many have taken as their springboard for commentary the immortal phrase "I have a dream," completing it with their own new dreams of justice and righteousness for America.

So it might seem a little surprising that today I have chosen to comment on a different King speech. King gave this speech at the conclusion of a march from Selma to Montgomery, in Alabama, on March 25, 1965. It is now known as the "Our God Is Marching On!" speech, since it closes with the words of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Towards the end of the speech, King poses a very basic question:

I know you are asking today: "How long will it take?" Somebody's asking: "How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed Wisdom from her sacred throne?" Somebody's asking: "When will wounded Justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?" Somebody's asking: "When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and the manacles of death? How long will Justice be crucified, and Truth bear it?"

King then answered this question many times, beginning with the basic "it will not be long," and building to the most famous quotation from this speech:

How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.

This is a well-known phrase, and one that Barack Obama often riffs on in his own speeches. However, I have come to the conclusion that for many this phrase has come to justify either inaction or passivity, which is exactly the wrong message to take away from it. If the arc of history eventually bends towards justice, after all, then all we need to do is sit back and wait for it to bend, right?

This problem stems, I believe, from how history is taught in America (at least in the K-12 level). History books, even those used in high schools, are remarkably non-causal. Things just happen. James W. Loewen wrote an entire book (Lies My Teacher Told Me) on the subject of how bad history textbooks are, and he defined the problem well:

Students are right: the books are boring. The stories that history textbooks tell are predictable; every problem has already been solved or is about to be solved. Textbooks exclude conflict or real suspense. They leave out anything that might reflect badly on our national character. When they try for drama, they achieve only melodrama, because readers know that everything will turn out fine in the end. "Despite setbacks, the United States overcame these challenges," in the words of one textbook.

. . .

None of the facts is remembered, because they are presented simply as one damn thing after another. While textbook authors tend to include most of the trees and all too many twigs, they neglect to give readers even a glimpse of what they might find memorable: the forests. Textbooks stifle meaning by suppressing causation. Students exit history textbooks without having developed the ability to think coherently about social life.

American history is boiled down to meaningless pap, which is then fed to children. The background theme is that everything always gets better in America -- always. The arc of the moral universe is one smooth curve towards justice, with no setbacks and no reversals -- ever. Because things always get better, over time.

This is what breeds passivity in civic life. If things are always going to be fine in the end, then there is no real reason to get involved. Why bother? Everything always works out OK, so let's sit on the couch and watch television instead of participating.

Even the legacy of Martin Luther King -- one of the most inspirational orators in all of American history -- falls prey to the boiling-down process. Even today, on the anniversary of King's most famous speech, how many will listen to the full recording? It's only about ten minutes long, but in all the hours devoted to commemorating it, how often will the full speech be presented to the public, rather than commentary by more modern (and less eloquent) orators? How many will hear King praising "[t]he marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community" today? How many will hear King denounce "the unspeakable horrors of police brutality"? Precious few, I would wager, even though it's from the same speech being celebrated.

Instead, the speech is reduced to it's final moments -- all the "I Have A Dream" stuff that was actually ad-libbed by King (none of it was in his original draft). This part, after all, is uplifting and feeds right in to the idea that things are going to be better in the future. The only words King spoke which could be considered equally as famous also coincidentally fit into this theme -- his "I have been to the mountaintop / I have seen the Promised Land," from the final speech he gave before his assassination.

Reducing King to just a few soundbites disrespects his memory, though. His true legacy was in proving that people can make a difference by their words and actions. King was fully aware that things didn't always "just work out OK," and that, furthermore, sometimes America moved in the wrong direction. The historic arc isn't smooth, and sometimes it bends the wrong way. He explicitly points this out, over and over again. From the "arc of the moral universe" speech, King gives a history lesson not often found in schoolbooks today:

Our whole campaign in Alabama has been centered around the right to vote. In focusing the attention of the nation and the world today on the flagrant denial of the right to vote, we are exposing the very origin, the root cause, of racial segregation in the Southland. Racial segregation as a way of life did not come about as a natural result of hatred between the races immediately after the Civil War. There were no laws segregating the races then. And as the noted historian, C. Vann Woodward, in his book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, clearly points out, the segregation of the races was really a political stratagem employed by the emerging Bourbon interests in the South to keep the Southern masses divided and Southern labor the cheapest in the land. You see, it was a simple thing to keep the poor white masses working for near-starvation wages in the years that followed the Civil War. Why, if the poor white plantation or mill worker became dissatisfied with his low wages, the plantation or mill owner would merely threaten to fire him and hire former Negro slaves and pay him even less. Thus, the Southern wage level was kept almost unbearably low.

Toward the end of the Reconstruction era, something very significant happened. That is what was known as the Populist Movement. The leaders of this movement began awakening the poor white masses and the former Negro slaves to the fact that they were being fleeced by the emerging Bourbon interests. Not only that, but they began uniting the Negro and white masses into a voting bloc that threatened to drive the Bourbon interests from the command posts of political power in the South.

To meet this threat, the Southern aristocracy began immediately to engineer this development of a segregated society. I want you to follow me through here because this is very important to see the roots of racism and the denial of the right to vote. Through their control of mass media, they revised the doctrine of white supremacy. They saturated the thinking of the poor white masses with it, thus clouding their minds to the real issue involved in the Populist Movement. They then directed the placement on the books of the South of laws that made it a crime for Negroes and whites to come together as equals at any level. And that did it. That crippled and eventually destroyed the Populist Movement of the nineteenth century.

The federal government didn't start segregation until the white supremacy of Woodrow Wilson. Wilson tried to get Congress to restrict civil rights on racial grounds, but Congress refused to pass such laws. So Wilson went ahead and segregated the executive branch on his own.

But the entire Reconstruction era and the later Jim Crow era contradict the facile "everything gets better" pseudo-history children are taught in the classroom. Because if the idea that America could do wrong, and in fact move backwards -- against the moral arc of the universe, in other words -- at any time in our past, then it might give rise to the idea that we could be doing so today. Which is a dangerous thought indeed.

America sometimes does move the wrong way, however. We are doing so right now, in fact, on multiple fronts. The easiest to point out is voting rights -- a subject dear to Dr. King. Many states have now passed laws which make it harder to vote. Just think about that for a second. This effort goes far beyond voter ID laws, and includes restrictions on early voting, Sunday voting, registration, and access to the polls. And it's happening right now.

That's just the easiest example. Sadly, there are many others. Read any of the numerous articles written today which complete the phrase "I have a dream" to see a few.

The true lesson Martin Luther King teaches is the exact opposite of what many take away from hearing the words "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." Because that arc doesn't bend on its own. It takes effort. It takes action. It takes speech after speech, and march after march. It takes public pressure and public demonstration. It takes time and it takes energy. It takes a firm commitment by multitudes.

The arc doesn't passively bend on its own. It must be bent. We all must bend it together. If the people lead, the leaders will eventually follow. That is the lesson I take away from Martin Luther King's words, personally.


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