The arc of the moral universe will bend toward justice—but only if we pull it

A polling station is seen at the Arlington Arts Center in Arlington, Va., on Tuesday, November 2, 2021. Virginia is voting for governor, state house and senate races.
Greg Nash

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Like many of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quotations, these words echo through the ages. They offer hope and give rise to a sense that progress toward freedom, equality, and—indeed—justice is inevitable. 

But the arc of the moral universe is anything but. It does not bend towards justice on its own—no, it only does so because people pull it towards justice. It is an active exercise, not a passive one.

No one knew this better than Dr. King. His famous words are divorced of their broader context. Before delivering this famous line in his sermon at the Temple Israel, Dr. King acknowledged to reach the promised land, some people might get “scarred up” or even face death. 

This was a statement borne of lived experience. The “Little Rock Nine” were harassed and blocked from integrating their high school in Arkansas. Six-year-old Ruby Bridges had to be escorted by armed federal marshals as she became the first student to integrate her elementary school in New Orleans. 

The Freedom Riders faced horrific violence as they made their brave journeys through the Deep South. Four young girls were killed by a bomb at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. John Lewis and civil rights marchers faced down tear gas, billy clubs and Bull Connor that famous March Sunday on the Edmond Pettus Bridge. 

Despite the dangers, bold individuals pulled our country towards justice, ensuring progress in their time. The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were possible because of fearless warriors like Dr. King, Fannie Lou Hamer, and the tens of thousands of unnamed activists who never backed down from their commitment to holding our country to its founding promise that all people are created equal. The America we live in today was secured by the sheer will, boundless bravery, and steadfast commitment of those who came before us.

Yet their work is incomplete. Bias and discrimination still hold a knee on the neck of justice and equality. The face of the problems may have changed, but the intent is the same. We may not have legalized segregation anymore, but our schools are more racially isolated than at any point since Brown v. Board of Education. We may not have legalized discrimination, but Black men and women know all too well that bias is alive and well, pervading their lives and choices every day. 

In no place is injustice more apparent than at the ballot box. Instead of literacy tests, we have strict voter identification requirements. Instead of polling place intimidation, we have long lines and harsh laws against handing out water and food. And instead of poll taxes and grandfather clauses, we have voter purges and restrictions on early voting. 

The Voting Rights Act was one of the most far-reaching pieces of civil rights legislation ever passed, and it protected us, however imperfectly, from such abuses. But the right to vote is once again under attack. States across the country are passing laws that make it harder for Americans, particularly Black and Brown Americans, to vote, and Congress stands powerless. Powerless because of a rule formulated in 1917 to encourage discourse and compromise, not to hamper or stonewall decisions that affirm the rights of the American people.

The filibuster is not a law, and it is not in the Constitution. It is a tradition that has been misused throughout history to deny civil and voting rights. And the filibuster is being used for the same purpose again today. 

What is in the Constitution? The right to vote. Now is the time to defend that essential, constitutional right—using all means necessary. The eyes of history are upon us. We cannot let this moment pass us by. 

On Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, there has never been a more important time to defend our democracy and protect the progress those who came before us risked life and limb to secure. 

Dr. King was right: The arc of the moral universe can bend towards justice. But only if we pull it.

U.S. Rep. Shontel M. Brown, of Cleveland, represents the 11th District of Ohio in Congress.

Tags civil rights fillibuster John Lewis voting rights Voting Rights Act

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