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Editorial: Taking the Long View; The Struggle for Social Justice

In his speech Wednesday commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech, President Obama alluded to a favorite quotation of King’s: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Obama reminded those attending that “the arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own.” The point of this riff was that social justice advances only by means of human agency, and that there’s plenty of work still to be done to secure the progress in civil rights that has been achieved over the past half century and to extend it to other realms — in particular, the president said, the fight for greater economic opportunity and equality. This seems inarguable, and a good rallying point for further action.

But the quotation of King’s that the president chose — it is also one of Obama’s favorites — resonates in another way, both in the history of the civil rights struggle and in other causes in which citizens answer a moral imperative.

The quotation is generally thought to originate with Theodore Parker, the 19th century abolitionist who was a Unitarian minister. In a sermon in 1853, Parker 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 experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”

King’s truncated version can perhaps be best understood as an eloquent man’s homage to an earlier generation in the struggle in which he was engaged, but the original has much to recommend it as well. The first is the note it strikes of humans’ limited ability to comprehend with certainty what is happening around them. The second is the sense that individual conscience is the best way to discern the workings of the moral universe. The third is the emphasis on a long arc, which in Parker’s version is separated from the “bends to justice” conclusion. In sum, the quotation suggests that it may take a while to perceive progress with a moral certainty, although the ultimate outcome is not in doubt.

The sense that the struggle for justice is long and hard also suffuses King’s I Have a Dream speech, which placed the march for equality on a continuum of past, present and future. (“Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning.”) As the critic Michiko Kakutani pointed out in The New York Times recently, allusions framed in the elevated language and potent metaphors of the King James Bible tied the black experience in America to ancient truths. (“We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” from the prophet Amos.) References to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Emancipation Proclamation imbued the aspirations of blacks for equal treatment under the law with the authority of the American political and historical tradition (The nation’s founding documents were a “promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ ”) And, of course, the iconic dream oratory concludes with the timeless expression of faith and hope embodied in an old Negro spiritual — that the day is coming when all people will be able to join hands and sing, “Free at last! Free at Last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”

There is a lesson in here for all who are passionately committed to all sorts of causes. Progress is usually slow, fitful and often hard to measure, setbacks abound, discouragement is the eternal enemy of advancement. Thus the need to dream the long dream.

For instance, in the wake of last week’s announcement that Vermont Yankee was closing, we could only be astonished by the dedication of activists such as one interviewed by staff writer Maggie Cassidy, who had been working to shut down the reactor since it opened in 1972. “It’s 42 years of struggle, and we’ve come to the end of part of it,” an overjoyed Nina Swaim of Sharon told Cassidy, before going to note that the work of anti-nuclear activists was far from over. “We have to really keep on top (of the decommissioning process),” she said.

Indeed, the struggle — for whatever cause it may be — never ends, and the road winds uphill all the way. Not everyone is suited or situated to follow that road. But at the end of the day, those who walk it with courage and good cheer and a resolute heart are entitled to invoke an exemplary biblical coda to their life: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.”