“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Martin Luther King is most often quoted for this line, and he did, indeed, make this hopeful point, but his context was broader and deeper than meaning we give it in today’s Twitter world.
His actual statement was more telling:
“Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross,” Dr. King wrote, “but that same Christ will rise up and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name. Yes, ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’”
The presence of the quotation marks points to another source and, with the aid of Quote Investigator, I learned that King’s words had their own historical precedent.
Theodore Parker was a Unitarian minister and an abolitionist in a time when the change he dreamed of was something that had little relation to reality then or in his lifetime. What he wrote was:
Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. 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. You will find other versions of his words in other sources, but none betray his certainty.
All this is not to ask whose words we honor – indeed, Barack Obama is rightfully fond of this phrase – but to add context to the necessity of hope that tomorrow can be better for those who follow. We must all work to deliver, if not yet to live, the dream.