“Theodore Parker and the ‘Moral Universe'”

National Public Radio
All Things Considered
September 2, 2010

Melissa Block, host


BLOCK:Professor Clayborne Carson joins us to talk about the quote and its history. He is the founding director of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. Professor Carson, welcome to the program.

Professor CLAYBORNE CARSON (Professor of History, Stanford University): Good to be talking to you.

BLOCK: And this quote, the arc of the moral universe quote, is one that Dr. King used many times, including during the march from Selma in 1965. He was answering the question: How long will it take to see social justice? Let’s listen to a bit of that.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: How long? Not long because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. How long? Not long.

BLOCK: Professor Carson, when else did Dr. King talk about the arc of the moral universe?

Prof. CARSON: Oh, on many occasions and usually as part of a series of quotes from abolitionists, ministers and activists from the 19th century. And that’s not surprising.

I mean, the 19th century anti-slavery movement, until the 20th-century civil rights struggle, was one of the great social movements in American history. And of course, it had its intellectual side. It had its ideas, these wonderful ideas that were usually expressed through oratory.

So King was borrowing from that tradition. He was borrowing from Frederick Douglass. He was borrowing from many different sources, including Lincoln.

BLOCK: Well, you have brought in a part of the 1853 sermon by Theodore Parker, the abolitionist minister. Can you read the part that Dr. King then used and made it his own?

Prof. CARSON: 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 experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.

As you can see, the Parker quote is not as concise as what King made it in his own speech, and often, that is the case. When people use quotes from others, they paraphrase, and sometimes, they make it better. Sometimes they make it less effective.

[For full interview and transcript, visit “Theodore Parker and the ‘Moral Universe’.”