“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.”
Does that sound familiar? It should. It was often paraphrased by Martin Luther King Jr. in his speeches. For example, in the coda of his 1965 Our God is Marching On! speech in Montgomery, Alabama (delivered after the police split open John Lewis’s skull on the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma), King made reference to it.
And so I plead with you this afternoon as we go ahead: remain committed to nonviolence. Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding. We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. And that will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man. (Yes)
I know you are asking today, “How long will it take?” (Speak, sir) Somebody’s asking, “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?” Somebody’s asking, “When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?” Somebody’s asking, “When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, (Speak, speak, speak) plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and the manacles of death? How long will justice be crucified, (Speak) and truth bear it?” (Yes, sir)
I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, (Yes, sir) however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, (No sir) because “truth crushed to earth will rise again.” (Yes, sir)
How long? Not long, (Yes, sir) because “no lie can live forever.” (Yes, sir)
How long? Not long, (All right. How long) because “you shall reap what you sow.” (Yes, sir)
How long? (How long?) Not long: (Not long)
Truth forever on the scaffold, (Speak)
Wrong forever on the throne, (Yes, sir)
Yet that scaffold sways the future, (Yes, sir)
And, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow,
Keeping watch above his own.
How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. (Yes, sir)
How long? Not long, (Not long) because:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; (Yes, sir)
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; (Yes)
He has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword; (Yes, sir)
His truth is m rching on. (Yes, sir)
He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat; (Speak, sir)
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat. (That’s right)
O, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! Be jubilant my feet!
Our God is marching on. (Yeah)
Glory, hallelujah! (Yes, sir) Glory, hallelujah! (All right)
Glory, hallelujah! Glory, hallelujah!
His truth is marching on. [Applause]
So, Theodore Parker was the first to say that the arc of the moral universe in long but it bends towards justice, he just said it in a less concise manner than Dr. King. This is now being debated because the new Oval Office rug has some famous quotes woven into it that were selected by the president. One of them is an exact copy of King’s version. There is no attribution for the quotes on the rug. It doesn’t have King’s name or Parker’s name on it. Yet, for some reason Jaime Stiehm of the Washington Post is reporting otherwise.
King made no secret of the author of this idea. As a Baptist preacher on the front lines of racial justice, he regarded Parker, a religious leader, as a kindred spirit.
Yet somehow a mistake was made and magnified in our culture to the point that a New England antebellum abolitionist’s words have been enshrined in the Oval Office while attributed to a major 20th-century figure.
Here’s a snapshot of the Washington Post website:
Obviously, that headline is wrong. The rug carries no attribution and therefore cannot contain an error in attribution. As Stiehm notes, the quote on the rug from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettsyburg Address (“government of the people, by the people and for the people”) was also lifted from Theodore Parker. Some people can discuss the significance of Parker having two quotes on the Oval Office rug rationally without falsely accusing anyone of making a mistake of misattribution on only one of them. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was one of the most important speeches in our nation’s history, but so was Martin Luther King’s Our God is Marching On! speech. Both men made memorable statements riffing off phrasing first used by Parker. But only one of them is considered to be misattributed. Yet, neither of them are attributed on the rug.
It’s true that most people think of King as the originator of the ‘arc of the moral universe’ language, but then so, too, do they think of Lincoln as the originator of the ‘for the people’ language.
When called on this, Ms. Steihm responded:
Joe, to your point, you cannot take the essence of a quotation and speak it in a speech, and call it yours! This is Theodore Parker’s original language, concept, poetic prose. I am aware of everything you wrote to note, thanks, but found your tone left something to be desired. If you’re the son of the writer, or if not – words belong to the writer/author/preacher who said them first. King surely revived and renewed Parker’s longer lines – and I admire Obama tremendously, don’t get me wrong. But I passionately believe the past can’t get lost in translation – call it the history major in me. Hope this speaks to your concern.
Best wishes, Jamie
How could it possibly speak to our concerns? What are our concerns?
1. That the headline says there is an error on the rug, but the only possible error is in the understanding of some people who see the rug and don’t realize that the quote, while actually true to King’s words, was inspired by someone else.
2. That the article suggests there is an attribution on the rug when there is not.
3. That the article suggests the president has made some mistake (“For the record, Theodore Parker is your man, President Obama.”)
4. That the Lincoln quote is treated as correctly attributed when it stands alone, just like the King quote.
So, if the job is to correct the record so the American people have a correct understanding of history, how is Stiehm doing in that task?
She may not be responsible for the headline, but she’s responsible for the rest of it. And she provides no apology, but only smug dismissal of legitimate criticism. Too bad our tone isn’t so polite.