Bending toward justice

This is a good time to remember that, yes, the arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it can be excruciatingly long.

That’s a slightly twisted version of an aphorism that’s most strongly associated with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we celebrate today. Around the country, many schools are closed for the holiday. Others are in session, but hopefully teachers are teaching about King’s life and legacy.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Library of Congress photo

And hopefully schools everywhere are focusing their history lessons not just on King but on the civil rights struggle, and not only frontline leaders like King and Rep. John Lewis but strategists like Ella Baker and Bayard Rustin and fearless combatants like Fannie Lou Hamer and Vernon Dahmer. (Look them up!).

The effort to mark King’s birthday as a national holiday began soon after he was murdered in April 1968. Even that took 15 years to succeed; the arc was long. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed into law a bill that made the third Monday in January a federal holiday memorializing King. Authors of the bill were Republican Jack Kemp of New York state and Democrat Katie Hall of Gary, Ind.

Indiana University professor Bill Wiggins, who died last month, placed the quest for a King holiday in a much longer history of black freedom holidays, including Emancipation Proclamation anniversaries and Juneteenth, which marks when news of the end of the Civil War reached Galveston, Texas.

“The King holiday supporters were the latest in a long line of Afro-Americans who have sought to have one day declared a national holiday to commemorate Afro-American freedom,” he wrote in the 1989 book “O Freedom! Afro-American Emancipation Celebrations.”

Wiggins traced that history back to 1808, when the Rev. Absalom Jones of Philadelphia called for an annual day of thanksgiving for the abolition of the international slave trade. Future generations, he said, would mark with gratitude that Congress had ended “the trade which dragged your fathers from their native country, and sold them as bond men in the United States of America.”

But the arc of progress stalled. Slavery and the domestic slave trade continued another 57 years and ended only with a Civil War that cost over 600,000 lives. Then came 100 years of Jim Crow segregation and racial subjugation that were challenged but not overcome by the civil rights movement.

And now we have a president-elect who, on the weekend of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, launches mean-spirited attacks on Rep. John Lewis, a genuine hero of the movement who marched with King and was arrested and beaten multiple times as part of the struggle for freedom.

Lewis responded by saying he will keep fighting for justice. How can the rest of us do otherwise?

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