Martin Luther King delivered these words at the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery march, at the end of some of the worst acts of violence committed against civil rights workers, at the end of a march that began with the death of a 26-year-old church deacon, that survived the clubbings of Bloody Sunday, and that was ultimately protected by a federalized Alabama National Guard. Today, on the anniversary of his assassination, there is something inescapably hopeful in this speech, where King asks for his listeners their own question, "how long will prejudice blind the visions of men?", and then answers it, repeating the phrase "how long? not long!", reciting the verses of his moral argument between this chorus. This part of the speech talks about the triumph of honesty over delusion ("truth crushed to earth shall rise again"), and the inevitability of karma ("you shall reap what you sow"), but it is this phrase, "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice" that has always stood out for me. The notion of that there is a moral universe, and that it contains movement, and not only movement but a movement with a deliberate direction toward justice, has lifted me up on the days that felt like lifting wouldn't do, it has put a hand on my shoulder in an empty room and shown me the way out of no way.
King lived through death threats, and constant surveillance. His house was bombed with his wife and child inside. He witnessed the deaths of four little girls in a church that was bombed on a Sunday. He was jailed, repeatedly, and almost sentenced to hard labor for a traffic violation; it was stopped only by the intervention of John F. Kennedy. Through all of that, there is the constant, daily practice of putting one foot in front of the other, organizing, forming coalitions, saying a firm no to injustice with one hand while inviting your opponent to the negotiating table with the other. Behind all of that there is hope, because there needs to be hope, because hope is the only currency in the daily trade of life that holds value, not just in the moment, but looking forward.
Part of Kingian nonviolence is a daily affirmation, a spiritual commitment and a promise to live nonviolently. It is something I struggle with. I think most people do. To truly turn the other cheek, to genuinely engage the perpetrator of injustice while loving him as a human being is almost impossible at times. There are moments in life when justifiable hate just feels good, as bad as it is for you, as harmful as it is for society and as much as it clouds the judgement and dulls common sense, it is as human and normal as any other feeling we possess. The only antitdote to it is belief: belief in the goodness of others; belief in the goodness of yourself, and belief in the goodness of the universe, moral, eternal, bending to justice in its own sweet time, and you, too, bending with it because you choose to, moment by moment, day to day, even on days like today, when we remember a good man, killed in a moment, who still lives, with us.