The Moral Arc Is Bent Toward Justice
Dr. King was not one to use words merely for rhetorical flourish. A careful reading of his speeches not only shows the intellectual and moral grappling he engaged in in order to write them, but the education that helped shape the messages he shared with others.
While Dr. King received a Bachelors of Arts in Divinity and later a PhD in theology, his initial degree was in sociology. From a cursory study of his work, it is evident his search for meaning and morality was widespread, not merely based in Christianity but also well-informed by the Classical Greeks, Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy, and Mahatma Gandhi.
Nor was King’s study of Christian teachings based in some pie-in-the-sky theology but instead firmly based in the practical applications to be found in, among other things, the abolitionist movement and the black church. In fact, the very expression “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice” is a reference to a quote from Theodore Parker, an abolitionist minister of the 19th Century. King required his theology to have at least one foot in the observable world. He required his moral principles to have meaning on this mortal plane.
We should, then, consider the conviction Dr. King had when he chose to tell others “The moral arc is long, but it bends towards justice.”. We must understand that it is not some sort of wishful thinking or some inspirational phrase he used. That it was a conviction he arrived at not only through deep study and deep reflection upon the idea, but it was also a principle by which he guided his actions and his very life.
Dr. King was an intellectual. It is the rare intellectual who actually has the courage to formulate deep and abiding convictions upon which he leads his life and takes on the established power of the day. If someone of deep learning and deep questioning decides to act, it is most always only after he has acquired the certainty of his convictions, a hard-fought process.
Dr. Kings understanding of the world, which was a combination of his education and his real-life experience, led him to perceive that there were indeed moral laws every bit as binding as the laws of physics. It is hard to imagine lacking a deep-held belief in such moral laws and still choosing the path he traveled. King was not ignorant of the risks his actions would involve. Not lightly did he make decisions he evidently knew would very likely cost him his life. Lacking the belief that the world acted upon moral precepts that could not stray too far or too long into chaos and evil, it is hard to imagine him putting his own life and the lives of his family in pointless danger. Perhaps even more pressing in his mind, he would not have led such a movement that invested the hopes and dreams of millions had he not had the courage of his convictions. Deep convictions from which all stumbling blocks had been removed or smoothed over during long hours of study, contemplation, and prayer.
Dr. King saw a light at the end of the tunnel he chose to travel, an endpoint where justice awaited. As he freely admitted, he did not necessarily believe he himself would reach that other side, in fact it is likely he realized his steps towards that light would lead to his own demise. But he saw that distant light as the likely end towards which the moral force of the universe was pulling not merely himself but all humanity.
The death of Martin Luther King was a devastating blow to the social movement of which he was a part and for a time was able to lead. His death signaled to so many the futility of hope and any further moral progress. But it is clear to me at least that King saw not only that the moral arc of justice reached beyond his own life but might in fact require him to sacrifice that life in order to help shape it.
Dr. King saw a moral force that was capable of reaching beyond his own existence. His perception of moral laws was shaped from a historical perspective, from beliefs and insights gained from a deep study of his own religion, from an understanding of sociology, and from many other studies of and reflections upon the works of others who sought to understand those moral laws. Laws that are knowable, as physical laws are knowable. Laws that we can come to perceive more accurately through examination and through putting them into practice.
A society that strays too far from the moral laws must ultimately either be reined in by them or perish when they at last snap. Let this be a consolation to those who suffer from the injustice of a society that strays too far from basic moral principles, and let it inspire others to in some small way help shape the moral arc of which we are all a part.
The moral arc of the universe which Martin Luther King perceived was not the idle fancy of a daydreamer but the profound expression of one who not only took the time to explore such things, but also lived by his convictions. Let those who have witnessed the beauty, the determination, and the sacrifice of Dr. King’s life commit themselves to his vision, understanding as Dr. King understood that his death was not the end of his vision but a part of it. Let us strive fifty years later to see what Dr. King so clearly saw in his lifetime.