Bending the global moral arc

2018-01-14 06:06
US President Donald Trump. Picture: Evan Vucci

US President Donald Trump. Picture: Evan Vucci

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Martin Luther King Jr’s assertion in 1967 that the moral arc of the universe is long but bends towards justice may be his most well-known quote about the nature of time.

This phrase moved former US president Barack Obama so much that he had it woven into a rug in the Oval Office.

In his emotional victory speech after defeating Republican opponent Roy Moore at the end of last year, Senator Doug Jones invoked King’s dictum while telling his supporters they had “helped bend” the arc during his senatorial campaign.

However, as uplifting as the quote is, it is not the most useful guide during the Trump presidency.

Instead, we should heed words King wrote more than four years earlier on scraps of paper while inside a jail cell in Birmingham.

King was answering A Call for Unity, an open letter written by eight white clergymen who made a thinly veiled reference to him while criticising outsiders.

Citing improvements in the city’s racial climate since the beginning of the year, these religious leaders called the demonstrations being led by King, long-time colleague Ralph Abernathy and minister Fred Shuttlesworth “unwise and untimely”.

“We do not believe that these days of new hope are days when extreme measures are justified in Birmingham,” they wrote.

King took aim in his letter at the notion that time’s passage inevitably heals all ills.

“Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively,” he wrote.

“More and more, I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will.”

He penned these words at a difficult time. Along with Abernathy and Shuttlesworth, he was arrested on Good Friday, shortly after the campaign began.

Living every day under the threat of death from the time community leaders tipped him to lead the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 had exacted a toll on King.

Birmingham’s decisive moment did not occur until early May, after movement leaders heeded James Bevel’s call to have black youth put their bodies in the way of Birmingham public safety commissioner Bull Connor’s fire hoses, batons and police dogs.

The children’s bravery produced iconic images that led to worldwide condemnation.

Their work played a pivotal role in Birmingham’s leaders agreeing to desegregate the city’s businesses and to establish a biracial committee to improve employment opportunities for Birmingham’s black community.

These young people demonstrated that King was correct when he wrote in his letter to the clergymen that human progress doesn’t roll in on wheels of inevitability, but comes through the “tireless efforts” of people willing to struggle for justice.

King’s words echo across the decades as we stand on the cusp of the second full year of the Trump presidency.

If he was still alive, King would undoubtedly have opposed Trump’s racially tinged rhetoric and policies, such as the tax reform bill that blatantly favours the wealthiest citizens in the US.

Perhaps even more fervently, though, King would have spoken out against Trump’s dual assault on truth and the country’s democratic fabric because they were such fundamental elements of his life and work.

He repeatedly invoked poet William Cullen Bryant’s statement that “truth, crushed to earth, will rise again”.

And from his very first speech in Montgomery in December 1955, just days after Rosa Parks’ arrest, to his final address the night before he was killed in Memphis on April 4 1968, King declared his bone-deep love for democracy and his belief that the transformation of “thin paper to thick action is the greatest form of government on earth”.

So, as we pause to reflect on the life of King, who gave his life fighting peacefully to see the US be true to the lofty ideals enshrined in its founding documents, we should read his inspiring dream and his declaration of moral arcs bending inexorably towards a more just universe.

But we should also remember, and be guided by, the sobering words he wrote in jail about time’s neutrality and the need to use it constructively, as well as by the courage and ceaseless effort exhibited by the Birmingham youth who joined him in the struggle to dismantle American apartheid more than a half century ago.

Lowenstein is the Taco Kuiper Visiting Fellow at Wits University

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