By Paul Brandeis Raushenbush
In 1853, the controversial abolitionist Theodore Parker preached these words: “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. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”
A century later a young black preacher famously took up this refrain in his sermons and speeches; perhaps most famously on the steps of the State Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama in 1965 when he answered the question how long African Americans must wait for full equality and justice in America, “How long?” Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked, “Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
This faith in the moral arc of the universe became a central theme in King’s famous “I Have a Dream Speech,” delivered to a quarter of a million people at the March on Washington, 50 years ago this week.
The anniversary comes at a time when it is hard to feel that the universe is continuing to bend towards justice — especially for African Americans. Prison populations offer a stark reminder of racial inequity, Trayvon Martin’s killing went unpunished, stop and frisk targeting of African Americans has reached a boiling point, North Carolina has enacted voter suppression law, and the Supreme Court recently gutted the Voting Rights Act (VRA) that was one of the most important achievements of the civil rights movement.
In the majority opinion of the Supreme Court decision on the VRA, Chief Justice Roberts insisted “that nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically” and concluded therefore that the protections enacted and reaffirmed by Congress over that last 50 years are no longer necessary.