“The moral arc of the universe is long, and it bends toward irony.”
Appearing in an article in The New Yorker written by Jelani Cobb titled “Obama, Surveillance, and the Legacy of the March on Washington,” this clever turn of a potent phrase spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967 has gained a lot of attention.
While many took the opportunity of the 50th anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech to honor the work, sacrifices, and ideals of the most effective activist in this nation’s history in moving the civil rights cause forward, others have taken advantage of the occasion to voice ideas that are not in the spirit of Martin Luther King’s teachings.
It is important to know that the full sentence spoken by King in a speech about his opposition to the Vietnam War is, “I haven’t lost faith, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Opposition to Cynicism
Dr. Martin Luther King’s greatness lies in his uplifting message of strength in love and faith in the moral order of the universe. He reiterates time and time again that the cause of building justice in the world is ongoing, and he would agree that it is not a cakewalk that could be magically resolved in a matter of fifty years time. The long-term nature of the struggle is reason to rejoice, to climb up out of despair, he is saying in that speech, because it connects the individual to justice and love as universal truths.
King teaches that nonviolent resistance is an ennobling and healing act. Through the years, his words have inspired hundreds of thousands to put themselves in danger, protected only by their own strength of character:
“Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”
“We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.”
In the Vietnam speech, as always, he explicitly rejects anger:
“I speak out against this war, not in anger, but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and, above all, with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as the moral example of the world.”
Opposition to Fear
Of course, King was aware that he was under surveillance by the FBI. He also faced constant danger from violent racists, classists, and bigots. Every nonwhite citizen of the United States was subjected to discrimination and injustice every day, and although improved, their subjugation continues, today.
Facing fear is the heart and soul of nonviolent resistance. Because resistance to the long struggle for social justice comes from a place of fear – fear of loss, fear of change, fear of “other” – compassion is a powerful force, and freedom from the derangement of fear, the greatest strength. Whereas the status quo, occupied by fear of change, turns their inner fear outward as the weapon of choice against “the other,” the agents of change must embrace fear, thus denying fear its corrosive power on the human psyche.
In the 1940s, Swedish writer and journalist Stig Dagerman recognized the effects of fear unchained. He wrote about how the German people had let fear override their sense of justice and beauty, how the group mentality destroys personal responsibility, how life is little more than how we choose to face our fears.
In the southern United States, the civil rights activists of the 1950s and 60s broke the chains of fear that had been oppressing them. They transformed the fear tactics unleashed against them – from the physical, the brutal attacks and bombings, to the psychological, the dehumanizing segregation laws and daily discrimination – into badges of honor, exposing themselves to the cruelties of the police to draw their mistreatment out of the shadows and expose them to the judgment of the world beyond the streets of Montgomery and Birmingham and Selma. At the March on Washington, King encourages them: “You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.”
King recognizes the fear at the center of the Cold War when he says, “It is a sad fact that because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries.”
After 9/11, the West fell prey to its own fear and paranoia of a new “other,” using vast government resources to build a massive, worldwide surveillance apparatus that’s sensational exposure has effectively transferred that paranoia onto people all over the world.
What the post-9/11 West can learn from post-WWII Europe is what Stig Dagerman taught: that the collective fear that overrides justice also destroys personal responsibility. Just as the German people had allowed their fear of “the other” to overtake them, the people of the United States, riding on a mushroom cloud fear, abdicated their personal responsibility to listen to the dissenting voices, drowning them out while they cheered on their gung-ho government as it lead the Coalition of the Willing into its disastrous attack on Iraq.
A decade later, caustic cynicism and a critical crisis of confidence in the US government have sparked a blaze of fear-driven anger that is blinding to subtlety, effectively extinguishing careful consideration of the complexity of the modern world. It is a sad fact that Martin Luther King’s good name is being dragged into this fury and his words are being bent toward meanings that are in direct contradiction to what the great man’s life was all about.
The Dream of Freedom, Equality, and Justice
Many in the grip of this cynicism have denounced the 50th anniversary celebration as a pageant of sell-outs featuring only establishment figures such as Eric Holder, Jesse Jackson, and Cory Booker. The claim has even been made that Martin Luther King, himself, would not have been allowed to speak because he would have addressed militarism.
It is important to recognize the historical context of the 1963 event, called, in full, the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” It brought into the national spotlight the primary goal of the movement to connect economic exploitation with racism, highlighting how Jim Crow laws were not only demeaning to the personhood of black citizens in the South but infringed on the economic freedom that the abolition of slavery 100 years previously had promised them.
To be sure, pressure from President Kennedy, who was pushing for civil rights legislation, drove the direction and tone of the event, and strident criticism of the federal government was set aside, causing Malcolm X to dub it the “Farce on Washington.” So the organizers of both the original and the celebration set limitations on speech. Any dedicated social activist knows that pragmatism calls for many compromises to be made in order to meet their goals.
It is also important to understand that it would not be until 1967, in a speech titled Beyond Vietnam, when King would finally begin to speak out about militarism. Although the United States had been militarily involved in Vietnam since the 1950s, he didn’t address that until significant gains such as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act had been passed and the escalation of the war had made it impossible to ignore. He did so knowing that it would cost him the support of many of his white allies – including President Johnson – and cause great consternation among his fellow civil rights activists.
Even today, the connection of militarism with racism and economic exploitation that King began making just one year before his assassination is not a regular feature of often-disparate social movements. Today, the struggle for equal rights includes expanding and protecting the rights of women, workers, gays, and many different racial groups. It includes issues from voting rights, education, the prison system, racial profiling, and gun violence to environmental justice. But rarely is militaristic foreign policy joined with these issues unless it is to point out how military funding could be diverted to social programs – and in today’s political climate, tragically, it’s all about reducing the deficit, not increasing social spending.
Conversely, there is a troubling undertone to the present antiwar and civil liberties movements in that many base their support on cynicism and fear of Big Government, and this is contradictory to the concept of a worldwide socialist revolution that Martin Luther King was referring to when he called for a “revolution of values” in the United States.
King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was the apex of his work focused on bettering the lives of black people in the United States – and it is imbued with the message that the struggle for freedom for one community in one country at one time is just a small segment of the great arc of the moral universe toward justice. He dedicated his life to preaching the gospel of the individual’s connection to higher principles of human dignity, self-evident truth, and universal justice.