Accomplished orators – whether they are preachers or politicians – often weave old themes and phrases upon new looms.
Sometimes, they fold up a tapestry completed for one setting and unfurl it, as if new, in a different setting. Martin Luther King Jr. did.
His sermons and stump speeches have a broad resonance as the notes and tones, some soft and some strident, reverberate in settings sacred and secular, in cathedrals and conference centers, and on the steps of national shrines as well as on common street corners.
More than 50 years after he died in Memphis, many of his phrases (and their cadence) remain familiar.
One of the positive things about our current technological sophistication is that the sermons and speeches of King are as close as an internet connection.
You can read King’s “I Have a Dream” speech from Aug. 28, 1963, here.
After “I have a dream” and “Let freedom ring!” the most familiar words from King must be, “Let us realize that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” delivered in a sermon at the National Cathedral on March 31, 1968.
The words were not his, but King’s use of them became his oral signature. They loom in granite at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in our nation’s capital.
King found those words in a sermon from Theodore Parker titled “Of Justice and the Conscience,” published in 1852.
Parker was a transcendentalist and a Unitarian minister who rose to international prominence by the end of his short life of 49 years.
He was an orator of the first order and developed a following during his years at Harvard University as a teacher of Hebrew sacred texts.
As his world lurched toward a confrontation over the scourge of slavery, Parker was resolute. He correctly identified Thomas Jefferson as “trembl[ing] when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just.”
Immediately before that line, Parker penned the words that captured the center of King’s prophetic passion. “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.”
In life and death, Martin Luther King Jr. had and has detractors, often focusing upon King’s abridgement of Parker’s thoughtful confession about the postponement of genuine justice as a way to malign King as either a fatalist or an idealist.
I reject both claims and assert that King was a hopeful realist who learned through adversity the power of hope and confidence that because God is just and righteous, as the prophet Amos declared, and that justice and righteousness will prevail.
Like Amos (and later, Parker), King was enmeshed in the then, the now and the soon-to-be manifestation of divine presence.
If justice is to prevail, people who hope for justice must also become and be advocates for justice.
Amos was a strident prophet of Israel who demanded that his listeners engage the work of justice. “You know what the Lord requires: act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8).
Absent from the exhortation is any hint of fatalism or idealism. Parker and King each reflect the realism that demands that faithful people must actively be involved in the pursuit of the hope that justice will prevail.
The 37th anniversary of the celebration of the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. will be Monday, Jan. 20.
With each passing year, we have the chance to deepen our understandings of history and the hope that moves us forward.
If “the arc of the moral universe … bends toward justice,” then we must embrace the hard work of following the arc. The long arc of the moral universe is bent toward justice by hope.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week for Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2020. The previous articles in the series are:
Shepherd Your ‘Little Church’ as Thermostat to Alter Society | Aidsand Wright-Riggins
Decades Later, Why is Martin Luther King’s Dream Still a Dream? | Starlette Thomas
Celebrating Black Lives Matter on Martin Luther King Jr. Day | Cory Jones
Redeeming the Systems That Make Equality for All Unreachable | Andre Towner