"The arc of the moral universe is long," goes a quote often attributed to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., "but it bends towards justice.”
The famous quote's inspiration can be found in a much earlier sermon by the Rev. Theodore Parker, a Boston abolitionist and transcendentalist. Dan McKanan, a professor of American religion at Harvard Divinity School, sat down with WGBH News to discuss who Parker was and how his line ended up in a speech by King — and on the floor of the Oval Office.
Can you tell us a little bit about the Parker sermon where the line originated?
When Parker first gave this sermon, this was a time when it looked like the arc of the moral universe was not bending toward justice. Slavery had been abolished in Massachusetts decades earlier, but the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law effectively brought it back. It allowed slave catchers and federal marshals to come into Boston to apprehend men and women who had fled from slavery. Some of those men and women were members of Parker’s congregation ... That congregation was a sanctuary that said we will not allow slave catchers, we will not allow agents of the federal government, to come into our community and take these people back to slavery.
Is there a tradition of preachers borrowing material from each other?
Martin Luther King was one of the best at taking borrowed material and making it better. It’s interesting that Parker himself was also a borrower, and he was reflecting on a number of proverbs dating back thousands of years. One of them wen, 'The mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind to powder.' So really Obama, Parker and King are all part of a larger continuous tradition of struggle for justice against those mountains of injustice that King talked about.
To listen to the full interview, click on the audio link above.