As president, Barack Obama helped to popularize Martin Luther King, Jr.’s quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Obama so loved the quote that he had it woven into a rug in the Oval Office. It became a favorite of op-ed writers and well-meaning liberals, who used it to remind their audiences of the long road ahead for those committed to progressive politics. Often, Obama used it to temper the hope his presidency inspired, to remind those who had placed their faith in his message of change that it would not be one singular moment, such as the election of the first black president, that would usher in a new and just society.
The dawn of the age of President Donald Trump has restored to that quote some of the meaning lost in Obama’s repeated use. We say it to ourselves now because we need to believe, even as all visible signs of progress are eroded, that the world we seek lies waiting for us, just on the other side of this hellscape. It is not going to show up tomorrow, but knowing that it will show up someday should help fortify us for the fight ahead.
This use of the quotation, though, carries the risk of magical thinking. After all, if the arc of the moral universe will inevitably bend toward justice, then there is no reason for us to work toward that justice, as it’s preordained. If it is only a matter of cosmic influence, if there is no human role, then we are off the hook. This isn’t how King meant it, as evidenced by the work to which he dedicated his own life.
His use of the quote is best understood by considering his source material. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” is King’s clever paraphrasing of a portion of a sermon delivered in 1853 by the abolitionist minister Theodore Parker. Born in Lexington, Massachusetts, in 1810, Parker studied at Harvard Divinity School and eventually became an influential transcendentalist and minister in the Unitarian church. In that sermon, 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 single sentence is a more tightly wound rhetorical punch, easily deployed for immediate inspiration, but it carries the unintended effect of suggesting that justice is inevitable, so that no matter what we do now, the arc of the moral universe will care for us later. Parker’s sermon, however, forces us into a more active role. He starts by admitting that he does not “understand the moral universe,” which King’s more declarative statement elides. He is less sure of that universe’s contents and of where it may lead, since the “arc is a long one” and his eye “reaches but little ways.” Unable to “calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight” he is left to “divine it by conscience.” This could still be read as somewhat passive. Parker is not reaching out to bend the arc himself; rather, he is envisioning what it must look like through his own seemingly enlightened conscience. As an abolitionist and Christian, of course he is sure the arc bends toward justice, or else his work and faith must both be called into question. But his uncertainty about the moral universe is what makes his strong faith a necessity. For Parker, there is no guarantee, that he sees clearly, of the moral universe doing as he wishes. It is only through his own conscience, and thereby his own actions, that justice will be achieved.
King’s quote leaves little room for such uncertainty. The arc will bend toward justice; he knows it and wants for us to know it, too. But the longer a quote is divorced from its context, the more easily it is manipulated to unintentional ends. And there have been efforts to ensure this does not happen. In a 2016 interview with CBS, former Attorney General Eric Holder cautioned that “the arc bends toward justice, but it only bends toward justice because people pull it towards justice. It doesn’t happen on its own.”
This, still is, the sort of vague language that offers up the beloved quote as a hollow inspiration. I, too, am guilty of this, of deploying some version of Holder’s comment as an easy applause line that amounts to little more than an empty rhetorical gesture. For as much as progressive movements have come to understand that bending the arc requires work, they have not defined where that work is meant to take us.
“Justice” ― like its rhetorical friends “freedom” and “equality” ― is a word that is allowed to go uninterrogated, as if we are settled on a universal understanding of its meaning. But one woman’s justice might be another woman’s oppression. Americans neither possess any intrinsic notion of what constitutes justice, nor have we adequately adjudicated it through policy or culture. If we had, we’d need none of our current debates about the myriad accusations of sexual abuse and harassment in Hollywood and the allegations they’ve inspired in other industries. We would not be looking at a growing legalized marijuana industry and wondering what to do with the thousands of people behind bars who committed a similar action when the drug was illegal. If we had a real, working conception of “justice,” we would already have answers for these dilemmas. If we were committed to bending the arc toward that widely-accepted notion of justice, we would be acting on those answers by now.
Before we can be active participants in bending the arc of the moral universe, we have to know what we’re bending it toward. How we define “justice” will determine the work that we do to achieve it. And unless we do the work to define “justice,” we never will.
Mychal Denzel Smith is the New York Times bestselling author of Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching and a fellow at The Nation Institute.