“Bending the Arc of the Moral Universe Toward Justice”
In March 1965, a year and a half after the historic 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which I participated in. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a non-violent Voting Rights march with John Lewis from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and spoke these words about voting freedom to a crowd of thousands:
“How Long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Dr. King was a minister, an orator, and a prophet. He saw the universe as basically moral, spiritual, beneficial, holy, curved in an unfinished arc which gravitated toward justice. His vision embodied what was happening on this earth, where man can do justice or injustice to his neighbor. He foresaw a march toward justice in our country and the world, and that the march and the bending would not be long. When the arc is fully bent, reaching the ground, equal justice for all will be realized.
The perfect arc we know is the rainbow. It requires a rare combination of sun and water to realize its multi-colored glory, and it reaches the earth at both ends. But it is evanescent and impermanent, and fades if that combination is absent. The arc of justice enlarges and contracts, and has not yet established itself on the earth.
We know from experience and history that true justice requires a social system based in truth and freedom.
Frederick Douglass said on an anniversary of the 1862 Emancipation Proclamation:
“The life of a nation is secure only while the nation is honest, truthful, and virtuous.”
Lawn signs in Westchester carry another lesson from Dr. King:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
A government or society built on lies and deception cannot be just. Untruths are unjust. Slavery is unjust. Justice in a country requires a firm foundation, the free consent of those governed based upon a true knowledge and evaluation of right and wrong. Lies and deception prevent that.
There cannot be true justice in a dictatorship or any autocracy where freedom is limited or non-existent, particularly freedom to dissent in speech or action. Unjust measures must be promulgated, and unjust penalties must be imposed, to control defiance of the dictator. The only truth is what the dictator says it is. Important countries are now dictatorships, including Russia, China, North Korea, Turkey, and Venezuela. Their tyrannical creed that Might makes Right threatens democratic regimes in Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, and Ukraine, as well as minorities such as the Kurds, Armenians, and the Muslim Uighurs in China.
What has happened in America to the freedom and truth necessary for full justice? What has happened to Dr. King’s idea of an America where people are judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin? Where there is equal justice under law, and no person is above the law? Where the ideals of our nation’s creed are reflected in our political discourse and actions?
Now, 53 years after Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, we wonder whether the arc of the moral universe is still bending toward justice, or whether injustices in the world and our country have reversed that arc.
Significant advances in civil rights and equal opportunity, including employment, were made under Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman before and during World War II. The early 1960s saw Head Start, the Peace Corps, the Office of Economic Opportunity, the Legal Services Corporation, the Voting Rights Act, and the Equal Rights Amendment. It also saw the assassination of two Kennedys, and Dr. King. Lyndon Johnson, who got many of these through, was a fervent champion of equal justice for all. Forty years went by before Barack Obama was elected, and his breakthrough presidency from 2008 to 2016 was one of radiance, promise, and inclusivity with the arc bending toward justice.
The long 500-year African-American journey through injustices, including slavery, lynching, Klansmen, incarceration, denial of voting rights, segregated ghettos, facilities, transportation, and businesses, seemed to be moving forward. But equality, integration, tolerance, and friendship proved too much for prejudiced Americans who begrudged those things to others.
Unfortunately, segments of our population brought their festering ill-formed resentments against racial progress and justice, and elected President Trump, who assembled the kindling of prejudice, lit the fire, and poured oil on it.
The painful truth about our government and society from 2016 to today must be told. Many Americans including former President Trump, have advocated or pledged allegiance to a destructive “Alternative Reality.” Its currency is lies and fantasies, not objective, verifiable, scientific truth. Trump, his supporters, and the conservative media, have been the primary issuers and users of this currency
Trump’s “Birther Movement” was a big lie; Barack Obama was born in Hawaii and was always an American citizen. Trump’s Inauguration crowd was not nearly as big as that for President Obama or many other Presidents. Russia, not China or Iran, interfered significantly in the 2016 and 2020 elections on behalf of Trump, not on behalf of Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden. Climate change is not a “hoax,” it is all too real, evidenced by hotter and drier climates, melting ice caps, piercing winds, huge forest fires, and higher ocean levels. Hydrocarbon emissions, fouled waters, plastic dumps, dying fish, are all real danger signs.
Neither Hydroxychloroquine, nor Lysol, nor Remdesivir, nor a lightbulb in the stomach, prevents or cures Covid-19. “Herd Immunity” was not a feasible goal for Covid-19 in 2020 or for at least much of 2021. Covid-19 did not magically “disappear.” Masks and social distancing work to slow the virus; big, tightly packed, unmasked crowds, including Trump political rallies, spread it. Our national government under Trump failed abysmally and has been dishonest about everything related to the Coronavirus pandemic. Trump has done an injustice to the American people: 27,000,000 have already been infected, over 457,000 have paid with their lives.
His baseless lies about our electoral system have been extremely or more harmful to our democracy. In 2020, there was no fraud in the use of mail-in ballots, early in-person voting, or drop-off ballots, all of which were sorely needed because of the Coronavirus. The 2020 Presidential election was not “rigged” in any state; the ballot counts were accurate. No factual evidence of any fraud or miscount was shown to any court or administrative body. Trump and his lawyers batted 0 for 60. But the greatest internal threat and injustice to our democracy was, and is, the continuing lie that Trump won the 2020 election.
The Democratic Biden-Harris ticket won the election, the Republican ticket of Trump and Pence lost the election.
Amid the horrors of the pandemic, Trump tried to eliminate Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act. Trump alone has, by objective count, told over 25,000 lies, many on matters of the highest gravity. A grave injustice to veterans, including me, and those in military ranks, was when he, who never served, called them “suckers” and “losers.”
Another backward-looking part of the Alternative Reality is America’s unexplained and unjustified shift out of time-honored alliances and organizations. We have abandoned or undermined long-held commitments to the Kurds, to Ukraine, to NATO, to the Iran Nuclear Treaty, to trade pacts, and to international health organizations. Trump adopted dictators and refused to criticize their actions. He repeatedly failed to confront Russia on its internal poisoning and coercion of dissenters, its interference in America and other countries, and even its bounties for killing American soldiers
The Alternative Reality also features repeated verbal abuse of non-Trumpers. Trump vilified his Republican opponents in 2016, has degraded Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Nancy Pelosi, and recently even Mike Pence and Mitch McConnell. He has used tweets and incendiary language, inflaming his rally crowds to shout, “Lock her up,” and to make abusive threats about those who irritated him. Simply to win elections, they falsely label their opponents as “Socialists,” “Marxists,” “Communists,” and “far left radicals,” meanwhile enjoying social security payments and Medicare treatments.
A major contributor to estranging so many Americans from truth and justice, transporting them to the Alternative Reality, is the conservative Media. Millions of Americans daily view Fox News and AON, and listen to local radio stations, which conservative corporations continue to buy up. These exclusive purveyors of news, politics, and viewpoints broadcast right-wing, Trump-centered, conspiracy-laden falsehoods. Trump and his media call the real, truthful news “fake news.”
He has made attempts to bribe or coerce officials to comply with his desires. He tried to get the President of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden by threatening to withhold American economic aid and protection: he asked the Governor of Georgia to “find” votes, enough votes to overturn a Biden victory, and he asked former Vice-President Pence to read false Electoral College vote totals.
All this has divided our country, has undermined our standing and leadership in the free world, has paved the way to prominence of groups based on myth and hate like QAnon. Proud Boys, White Supremacists, and Neo-Nazis. Trump, his sons, Rudy Giuliani, Ted Cruz, and others incited the January 6 Capitol invaders, wearing anti-Semitic shirts saying “6 million wasn’t enough,” waving confederate flags and “Make America Great Again” banners, brandishing fire extinguishers and bear spray as weapons, smashing into and occupying hallowed chambers; with intent to disrupt and even kill.
At the heart of this widespread miasma of lies and autocracy, is injustice to the truth, injustice to our democratic allies, injustice to our constitution, our governmental institutions, injustice to economic and medical care to those in need, injustice to our freedom, and our open and democratic society.
In spite of all of this, there is yet hope that the moral arc of the universe is, once again, bending toward justice. 80 million Americans made Trump a one-term President, rejecting his message of fear, favoritism, and fantasy. Our country’s courts, including Trump-supported judges, threw out all of his bogus attempts to overturn the 2020 election. New York State is prosecuting him for fraudulent tax returns. Trump faces a second impeachment trial, and others face investigation and prosecution for inciting the Capitol insurrection on January 6.
This was no peaceful protest. Progressives were not involved. This was an attempt by Trump and his mob to overturn the election results, have bogus vote totals substituted, and by a coup, steal the government for four more years.
Across America, millions breathed a collective sigh of relief on November 3, and again on January 6. Many cried. They cried for democracy, our form of government, which Lincoln called “the last, best hope of earth.” We have come through a crucible, a dire emergency, as a nation, a four-year trauma wondering what new harm would be done to America the next day. Many Americans believed our democracy would not have survived another four years of Trump.
President Biden has nominated highly qualified people to his Cabinet and other key posts. He has proposed that Science be raised to Cabinet level. He has promised to heal and unify our badly divided country. He has promised to work for all Americans, not just those who voted for him. Biden has rejected Trump’s “America First” isolationist policy, knowing that America must work in cooperation with others in our complex world. He has promised that America will rejoin democratic military and governmental alliances, treaties, trade pacts, and international institutions that Trump left. We have already rejoined the Paris Climate Accord and the World Health Organization. He has promised to increase governmental aid to needy American families and individuals beset by the pandemic or unemployment, and to have a cooperative, all-out distribution of vaccines. He has committed his administration to transparency and truth. He has set a responsible, different example from Trump by wearing a mask and adhering to social distancing.
He has repeatedly rejected the Alternative Reality with its untruths and injustices. Right-wing efforts to keep citizens, particularly minorities, from voting will undoubtably continue, but progressive activism and constitutional protections promise more justice in voting. New proposals for automatic voter registration are being advanced. The long outdated and unjust Electoral College is being challenged.
Biden has reclaimed federal lands from private interests, and will press for a $15 minimum hourly wage, a huge jump for millions of workers. He has foresworn ranting personal attacks, and preferences based on racially or sexually divisive criteria.
The private sector has also shown hope for the future. An increasing number of media outlets, including TV channels, Facebook and other social media, refused to air Trump rallies, his Twitter tweets, and untrue news and attacks. Prominent former military and government officials publicly rejected the Alternative Reality and conspiracy theories.
I also see hope in the growing Republican split. The 2020 campaign saw a group of moderate, non-extremist Republicans from the Lincoln project to attack Trump, his followers, and his autocratic moves. Some Senate Republicans decried the January 6 insurrection, and likely will vote against Trump in his second impeachment trial. Those still currying Trump’s favor to enhance their own self-interest must deal with two important facts: Trump is out of office, without its trappings, influence, tweets, rallies, and media; and, truth keeps on coming in spite of efforts to discredit it.
But, in my view, the greatest hope for justice ansd progress is in the one most central to Dr. King’s life and work: race relations, including social and economic equality. The shocking death of George Floyd at the hands, or more accurately boots, of a Minneapolis policeman, created protests this year under the banner “Black Lives Matter.” in his famous book 1984, George Orwell wrote “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face-forever.” Well, we saw a boot stomping on George Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes, which was a lifetime for him.
But from that heinous event, and others like it, which the whole country witnessed, emerged a new black and white integrated activism, committed as never before to Black Lives Matter, and to progressing America’s march towards full social and economic equality.
Overwhelmingly peaceful and non-violent protests in many cities have already led to progressive police reforms.
The main difference between 2020 and 1963 is that in 1963, the civil rights protest marches led by Dr. King were largely African-American, while in 2020 whites actually outnumbered blacks. The song “We Shall Overcome” has a verse, “Black and White together, we shall overcome someday.” In our multi-racial country, overcoming surely must be a joint effort, and the trend is strongly in that direction.
Now Kamala Harris, former United States Senator, is our first African-Asian-American Vice-President. President Biden has named for his administrative team a rainbow entourage, balanced in sexes, races, and sexual persuasion. The Cabinet includes as many women as men, an American Indian descendant as Interior Secretary, and a gay man as Transportation Secretary. African-Americans, Latin-Americans, and other minorities voted in record numbers, and Stacy Abrams and others are changing politics in key states. African-American commentators and legislators appear prominently daily on TV screens.
Jim Clyburn, an African-American Congressman from South Carolina, lifted Joe Biden up, and Biden’s heartfelt quality of empathy, scarred by personal tragedy, and absent for so long, is healing America’s people and bringing us together. It is a deliverance. As the storm and clouds give way to the sun, the rainbow appears.
President Biden has pledged and issued executive orders with measures to eliminate systematic racism in America, and to bring equality, equity, and justice to all our citizens
He has pledged to expand healthcare for all, without treating Coronavirus as a disqualification. He respects scientific fact, including the disproportionate effect of the virus and layoffs on minorities, and climate change. The administration has advanced a $50,000 reduction in student debt, which would do much to raise the economic standing of minorities. Biden has initiated a daily, factual press conference.
Ghandi, an inspiration for Dr. King, wrote:
“Nonviolence and truth are inseparable and presuppose one another. There is no God higher than truth.”
In Biden’s inaugural phrase, “Democracy has prevailed,” over the worst internal threat since the Civil War. By the exercise of Democracy’s greatest weapon, the ballot box, America has rejected authoritarianism in favor of truth, freedom and justice. We must be vigilant against the continuing threat of Trumpism, autocracy, and the Alternative Reality.
I admit to being a card-carrying optimist. But America can hope and dream again. It will find its soul again. America has awakened, and I believe will once again become the light of the world, with liberty, equality and justice for all. We must all act, in every way we can, including non-violent advocacy, to bring that about.
The bending of the arc toward justice is not uniform, but comes in waves. I believe we are at the breaking of another progressive wave. We must speak and act against bigotry and discrimination, as Dr. King did, to further bend the arc of the universe toward justice.