Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke these words on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol on March 25, 1965, at the conclusion of the third of three marches from Selma to Montgomery that have recently been memorialized in Ava DuVernay's film Selma. Approximately 25,000 people witnessed King's address, which is now widely known as the "How Long, Not Long" speech in reference to the anaphoric refrain of its climax:
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? Not long, (Not long) because "mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord." (Yes, sir)… "His truth is marching on."
Unlike the similarly anaphoric but better known "I Have A Dream" speech, which entreats the listener to find hope in the future, "How Long, Not Long" finds hope in the past. It was William Cullen Bryant, a nineteenth-century American poet, who wrote that "truth crushed to earth will rise again." (In "The Battle-Field," he encourages fallen warriors that "Truth, crushed to earth, shall rise again… / But Error, wounded, writhes in pain.") It was Thomas Carlyle, a nineteenth-century Scottish essayist and historian, who wrote that "no Lie can live for ever." (He was referring to the despotism that preceded the French Revolution.) It was Paul, a first-century Jewish proselyte to Christianity, who wrote in his epistle to the Galatians that "a man reaps what he sows." (Galatians 6:7-9: "A man reaps what he sows…. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.") And it was Julia Ward Howe, a nineteenth-century American abolitionist and poet, who wrote, "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord…. / His truth is marching on." King quotes them all. He is a giant on the shoulders of giants.
The simple promise of "How Long, Not Long" is that life gets better, that the human condition improves with time. Hans Rosling would certainly agree. In 2010, the Swedish doctor and statistician published "200 Countries, 200 Years, 4 Minutes" on YouTube. The video, which has received over 6.6 million views to date, chronicles beautifully the steady gains in average income and life expectancy that humanity has achieved during the last two centuries. (You really must see it if you haven't already.) Steven Pinker is an optimist as well. The thesis of his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, is that we are now living in the most peaceful era of our species' history.
Last week I came across "The World as 100 People," an infographic by Jack Hagley that distills Earth's seven billion human residents to a representative 100 and parses them according to various attributes. In many ways, Hagley's distillation vindicates King's hopefulness: 83% of people are now literate; 87% consume safe drinking water; 84% have adequate nutrition (indeed, 21% are overweight); 77% have shelter; and 75% even have cell phones. But in other respects, Hagley's wheel highlights persistent challenges: 93% of people have no college degree; 70% have no access to the Internet; and 48% survive on less than $2 per day. The wheel also reminds us that what is mainstream in the United States is decidedly not mainstream worldwide: only 5% of the world's population lives in North America; only 33% are Christians; only 5% speak English as their first language.
It was Theodore Parker, a nineteenth-century American Unitarian minister and abolitionist, who first described "the arc of the moral universe" in 1857:
Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. 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. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice. Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble.
America has trembled, of course, but if the Civil War of Parker's era was a massive seismic event, the civil rights movement – which we remember today in honoring its foremost prophet – was a smaller earthquake, and the recent polarizing events in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City were mere tremors. Indeed, perversely, we are challenged by the diminishment of our cataclysms. At the end of "200 Countries, 200 Years," Rosling qualifies his enthusiasm about human progress by noting that while living conditions have improved in China as a whole, enormous disparities remain: Shanghai is as healthy and wealthy as Italy, but rural Guizhou is like Ghana. In India, the world's largest democracy and the beneficiary of extraordinary economic growth since the turn of the century, 95 percent of marriages still occur within, rather than between, hereditary castes, effectively sustaining deeply entrenched social immobility. In post-apartheid South Africa, 47% of citizens are impoverished. Here in the United States, the median net worth of white households is $141,900, nearly 13 times the $11,000 median net worth of black households.
On the steps of the Alabama State Capitol in 1965, it was still news that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. That it is no longer news – that we take our collective upward trajectory for granted – is the principal challenge to social justice in our time. The successful address of large-scale, state-sanctioned or otherwise institutionalized civil rights transgressions has desensitized us to the less obvious yet nonetheless pervasive inequities that endure. Their variety, complexity, and subtlety inure us to inaction.
The most recent episode of Saturday Night Live opened with a sketch conversation between a time-traveling Martin Luther King, Jr. and a 2015 high school student who needs help writing an essay. "You had a huge influence on this country," the admiring student assures King. "What you did in Selma and stuff is still going on today. There were big protests about police violence just this year." King asks, "And these protests, did you join them? Are you part of the movement?" The student responds, "Oh yeah, I definitely protested. It's really easy now. You just take your phone here, push this Twitter button, then type in '#IamFerguson' or '#We'reAllBlack' or '#Blessed.' And then you're done." By the end of their conversation, a disillusioned King apologizes for not being able to help the student with his report. "Don't worry," the boy tells him. "I'm just gonna go on Wikipedia and cut and paste the whole thing."
In regression analysis, the coefficient of determination, or R-squared, measures the extent to which a trendline explains variability in a dataset. When R-squared is close to 1, the trendline explains most of the variability, and the data are huddled around it; when R-squared is close to 0, the trendline explains little, and the data are dispersed. The arc of the moral universe – the trendline of our humanity – indeed bends toward justice, but its R-squared value is unacceptably low. Our dataset contains too many outliers. Too much of the variability of human experience is unexplained by, and persists despite, our prevailing arc toward justice. We must do more to raise our coefficient of determination. Hashtags alone won't get us there.
We go to school to make the world a better place. Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.