One of Martin Luther King’s most famous quotations was first coined by a nineteenth-century minister, a writer claims in the Washington Post.
The quote, which is carved into the MLK Memorial, says:
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
There is no question that MLK deserves credit for popularizing the quote. But he did not invent it — nor did he ever pretend to be its author.
The quote comes from King’s 1965 Alabama sermon, at the end of the Selma to Montgomery march, titled, “Our God is Marching On.”
At the climax of the address, the Nobel laureate quotes a number of poets and sages (and even a confederate president), riffing from Julia Ward Howe’s “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” to James Russell Lowe’s “This Present Crisis” (Truth Forever on the Scaffold…) Then he soars on, sampling from Rev. Theodore Parker’s sermon “Justice the Conscience,” the Bible and even — lo and behold — the words of Jefferson Davis.
Dr. King has stitched together a wide variety of quotations and the speech is far greater than the sum of its parts.
Take a look at this passage from the speech:
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 marching 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]
Rev. Parker was an optimist — unrealistically so. In that same sermon, where he talked about the moral universe bending towards justice, he stated:
“Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right.”
After Jim Crow and “Separate but Equal,” after the Holocaust and Hiroshima, Dr. King did not pretend that he believed in a “continual and progressive triumph of the right.” But he promised that there was a Promised Land — and that his people would get there one day.