The Arc of the Moral Universe is Long, and Retractable

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., first used the quote “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” in 1958. The quote itself dates back to 19th Century abolitionists. Now, in the 21st Century, it is once again in doubt.

This week’s 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., inevitably is provoking a fair amount of “How Far Have We Come?” and “How Far We Have Come!” commentary. But more disturbing, for our nation and the world, is where the most prominent facets of Dr. King’s moral universe – racial and economic justice and Gandhian nonviolence – are going. Many of the signs are not good.

In commemorating the anniversary, the New York Times today included a front-page photo of the Lorraine Motel, the inner city motel where King was shot and killed. What the Times article didn’t mention was what has happened to the Lorraine itself and the area around it. City leaders used the Lorraine to site a new National Civil Rights Museum, which in turn has been used, despite community protests, to gentrify the surrounding neighborhood and drive out its historically poor, black residents.

In other words, a city seeking to turn an awful historical event into tourist dollars – and that only this decade, after years of community pressure, took down its Confederate statues – is monetizing Dr. King’s death for real estate developers. It’s s grim twist to the sort of economic displacement going on in central city areas across the US, leading to chronic shortages in affordable housing – and record levels of homelessness – among the people Dr. King championed most.

This is not an isolated development. On issue after issue, a half-century after a white supremacist shot and killed Dr. King (probably, as a Memphis jury later decided, as part of a broader conspiracy), King’s greatest achievements are being rolled back, from voting rights to economic opportunity to basic economic and public health indices.

The process began the same year Dr. King died, when Richard Nixon used his now-infamous “Southern Strategy” to win the presidency. The white supremacism Nixon appealed to has since steadily grown in power, to the point where it is now the unifying ideology of a political party that controls not only all three branches of the federal government, but 31 of 50 state governments and the vast majority of our country’s non-urban counties. Democrats have the upper hand in only four states not on the Western or Eastern seaboards – Colorado, Illinois, Minnesota, and New Mexico, all of which have large urban centers that control their states. Everywhere else, the corrosive influence of white supremacism has given the lie to the belief that King’s legacy is secure.

To be sure, there have been periods of pushback, most recently in Barack Obama’s election and the explosive growth of the Black Lives Matter movement. But it’s a measure of how much we’ve lost that the #BLM movement – a movement launched during Obama’s presidency – explicitly branded itself around black peoples’ right even to exist.

The triumph of Obama’s election led directly to the presidency of Donald Trump, a living embodiment of the rejection of Dr. King’s legacy who first rose to political prominence with the explicitly racist birther conspiracy. Control of federal law enforcement now rests with the neo-confederate Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, a man whose federal judicial nomination was rejected – one of only two such rejections in US history – because his overt racism was, in the Reagan era, too much even for the Republicans of the day. Now such racism is Republican orthodoxy, voter suppression and racist gerrymandering are the norm in Republican states, and the Voting Rights Act is dead.

The good news is that while Republicans have seized power, a majority of our country’s people, and the majority of its wealth, are in its cities, which generally reject that Republican orthodoxy. But even as Democrats are poised to make major gains in this year’s elections, it’s essential that they campaign not just against the general train wreck of the Trump Presidency, but explicitly against the hatred, fear, and bigotry that propelled it to power. Dr. King’s other legacy was his championing of Gandhian nonviolence – an ethos diametrically opposed to the bitterness and hatred that now dominates all facets of American politics across the ideological spectrum.

Democrats need to be explicitly rejecting not just racism and the policies it has spawned as a cornerstone of their campaign efforts. They also need to make clear that they care about all Americans, including poor and middle class whites being ripped off by Trump’s oligarchy. Otherwise, the politics of division will simply be America’s politics – the final rejection of King’s moral universe. And the groundwork for more white supremacist gains in the future will be securely in place.

That ethic of universal dignity and love is what made Dr. King a figure of global inspiration. It is now also in retreat in much of the world, a victim of predatory global capitalism, the rise in influence of anti-democratic kleptocracies like China and Russia, and the battle for resources made scarcer by population growth and climate change.

In the end, King’s vision is not only morally just, but may be the key to our survival as a species. That arc, his legacy, and human survival are by no means guaranteed.

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