Good morning, it's Friday, Sept. 11, 2020. Nineteen years ago today, a coordinated terrorist attack against our country took the lives of 2,606 innocent civilians at the World Trade Center, 125 U.S. government employees at the Pentagon, and 246 souls trapped on four passenger jets hijacked by suicide bombers. Although much has happened in this country, and the world, in the ensuing years, the horror and the evil of that attack have not lessened with the passage of time.
Friday is also the day when I reprise quotations intended to be instructive or inspirational. Today's quotes do not concern terrorism or war. They are about bending the moral arc of the universe.
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The phrase "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice" is engraved in stone at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. That's fitting because King uttered that phrase for the last time in Washington, a week before he was martyred in Memphis.
It was language he had employed many times before, and it's a paraphrase of a passage in a sermon by a fellow Protestant pastor named Theodore Parker. Born in the cradle of liberty, Lexington, Mass., and educated at Harvard Divinity School in the early the 19th century, Parker was an influential abolitionist who often inveighed against the monstrous injustice of slavery.
"I do not pretend to understand the moral universe," Parker said in an 1853 sermon. "The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice."
In the ensuing decades after the Civil War, his words would be tightened and repeated, usually in theological circles, always as a continuing call for social justice. Martin Luther King Jr. seems to have encountered his words while studying for his doctorate in Boston. As far as I can determine, the first time he borrowed Parker's imagery was in a 1958 paper. King put quotation marks around the words, an indication it wasn't original, but even then he had tightened the phrase to what would become its modern rendition.
King invariably put the words in a Christian context, and he generally placed a predicate before them: "Let us realize that the arc of the moral universe is long…" he said during an Aug. 16, 1967 address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference convention in Atlanta. And on March 14, 1968, while speaking outside Detroit, he prefaced it this way: "We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long…" Dr. King used the same words on March 31, at Washington National Cathedral, and it is that rendition of the phrase that's etched in stone at his memorial.
Audiences always understood, from the Rev. Theodore Parker's time into our own, that this observation is not an excuse for inaction. In other words, bending history toward moral justice may please Providence, but the hard work must be done by people. In a more literal (and less literate) age, Eric Holder, attorney general during the Obama administration, made this point clear. "The arc bends toward justice, but it only bends toward justice because people pull it towards justice," he told CBS News in 2016. "It doesn't happen on its own."
Sometimes that pulling is the simple act of voting. Sometimes it takes marching, other times it comes in the form of speaking, writing, acting, or singing. It can take something as dangerous as standing up to an armed bully. Or as undemanding as merely listening to the advice of a friend or ally. Such an exchange took place in 1966 at a swank fundraiser. On one side of the conversation was a black actress named Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura, a fictional officer on "Star Trek." On the other side was Dr. King.
Earlier this week I wrote about producer Gene Roddenberry's goals with the groundbreaking television series that first aired this week in 1966. One of them was to break stereotypes, and Lt. Uhura was the most conspicuous example. "She was not a servant," noted Washington Post reporter Elahe Izadi, "but … fourth in command of a starship."
The role had opened doors for Nichols, however, and she wanted to walk through them. After being offered a role in a Broadway-bound musical, she went to Roddenberry and told him she was leaving the show after the end of the first season. He was deeply disappointed. "Don't you understand what I'm trying to achieve here?" he asked her.
She replied that she did, and she was grateful. "But my life is theater, musical theater, and I'm getting offers for all kinds of wonderful things -- where I want to be."
He asked her to think about it over the weekend and she agreed.
As fate would have it -- that's the exact phrase Nichols always uses when telling this story -- she was a celebrity guest at a Saturday night fundraiser in Beverly Hills. No sooner was she seated at the head table when she was told that a "Star Trek" fan at the event wanted to meet her. She agreed and turned around to find not the pimply-faced young science nerd she was expecting, but a famous man three years older than herself with a radiant smile and a similar skin hue.
It was Martin Luther King Jr., and he got the joke. Yes, he said, he was the fan -- her "greatest" fan. "I am that Trekkie," he confessed, adding that "Star Trek" was the only program he and Coretta Scott King let their small children stay up late to watch. Nichols was appreciative, but slightly apologetic. "I wish I could be out there marching with you," she said.
"No, no, no, you don't understand," King replied. "You are marching. You are reflecting what we are fighting for."
With some hesitance, she told him she was leaving the show. King wouldn't hear of it, sounding just like Roddenberry. "Don't you understand what this man has achieved? For the first time on television, we will be seen as we should be seen every day, as intelligent, quality, beautiful people who can sing and dance, yes, but who can go into space, who can be lawyers and teachers, who can be professors -- who are in this day -- yet you don't see it on television until now."
King told her that leaving the show would be a mistake, and possibly a setback. "Gene Roddenberry has opened a door for the world to see us," King added. "If you leave, that door can be closed. Because, you see, your role is not a black role, it's not a female role. He can fill it with anything, including an alien."
On Monday morning, she was back in Roddenberry's office relating her weekend encounter with Dr. King, telling the producer that if he still wanted her to stay, she was all in. Handing Nichols her resignation letter, which he had ripped into a hundred pieces, the decidedly secular Roddenberry said, "God bless Martin Luther King! Somebody knows where I'm coming from."
Looking back on it years, later, Nichelle Nichols recalled her feelings after King spoke to her about the importance of what she was doing with her art. "At that moment, the world tilted for me," she said. "The universe -- the universal mind -- had somehow put me there."
Yes, with help from human beings it had tilted its arc toward justice, as NASA itself came to see. And that is your quote of the week.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.