Hope, Faith, and Metaphor in African American History

Mural depicting Barack Obama and Martin Luther King Jr. (Library of Congress)

In November 2022, the Chief Justice of India, D.Y. Chandrachud, cited Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. while encouraging his fellow judges “to bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice.” That metaphor, long associated with Dr. King, was further popularized by Barack Obama. On April 4, 2008, the fortieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King, then Senator Obama gave a speech in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Seven months later, Obama would be elected president, and his victory would be celebrated as a milestone in the long journey from slavery to freedom. King’s assassination might suggest a different reading of American history, a reading in which every victory for justice was followed by violence, and in which white supremacy did not so much decline as evolve. Obama rejected that darker reading of America’s racial past. In his address in Indiana, as in many other speeches during his campaign and presidency, he deployed a narrative of progress in which courageous Americans “challenged what they knew was wrong and helped perfect our union.” He reminded the crowd that “Dr. King once said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but that it bends toward justice.” Obama made clear that such progress requires concerted struggle. The arc “doesn’t bend on its own,” he told his audience. “It bends because each of us puts our hands on that arc and bends it in the direction of justice.” Yet despite his emphasis on determined action, there lingered a promise of relentless progress in the way Obama deployed the idea of the “arc of the moral universe” bending toward justice, a promise that both echoed and contradicted how King himself had used that metaphor.

More than fifty years earlier, on December 20, 1956, King addressed a large audience at St. John’s A.M.E. Church in Montgomery, Alabama.It had been over a year since Rosa Parks had refused to leave her seat on a city bus—over a year that 50,000 African American residents of Montgomery had been walking in opposition to racial oppression. “These twelve months have not at all been easy,” King declared. “Our feet have often been tired. We have struggled against tremendous odds.” Such a struggle might have undone a less determined, less organized community. From Professor Jo Ann Robinson to E. D. Nixon to Parks herself, who was a veteran activist, as historians like Jeanne Theoharis  have demonstrated, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was a product of tremendous labor, much of it done by women whose names are rarely recorded in history books.

According to King, it was faith that ultimately sustained the boycott. “We have kept going with the faith that as we struggle, God struggles with us,” he declared, “and that the arc of the moral universe, although long, is bending toward justice.” As his references to faith and to God make clear, King rooted the metaphor of the bending arc in a distinctly Christian conception of divine will. Like Obama, he used that metaphor in a variety of contexts, often blending his Christian faith with a more secular hope in the future of the United States. Yet whereas Obama tended to foreground a narrative of national progress, King advanced a Christian conception of redemption for African Americans as a people. The differences between how King and Obama envisioned the moral arc of the universe are brought into sharper relief when both figures are compared to the man who first used that metaphor.

In 1853, the renowned preacher and abolitionist, Theodore Parker, published a collection of sermons and speeches. In one sermon, entitled “Of Justice and the Conscience,” he stated, “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.” Like Obama and King, Parker aimed to move his audience to action. He was a committed social reformer who believed in fighting for justice. Yet also like Obama and King, Parker’s comments suggested that progress was destined to happen. He did not “pretend to understand the moral universe” and could not base his prediction on verifiable fact. Although he cited examples from history in which justice had triumphed—as if a record of past victories could reveal the direction of things to come—his vision of the bending arc of the moral universe was ultimately an act of faith. The tension between a hope based on history and a faith that rested in God would echo from Parker through King to Obama. While Obama drew upon Parker’s historically-grounded hope, King was more attracted to the providential faith in things unseen. Yet all three struggled to justify their vision of the moral arc of the universe bending toward justice. All three confronted a world full of injustice in which a metaphor that gestured toward the distant future risked providing false comfort, obscuring the sacrifices of the past, or mocking the struggles of the present.

Despite such risks, the metaphor has developed its own momentum, as demonstrated by Chief Justice Chandrachud’s comments this past November. Most often associated with King, the idea of the bending arc has been invoked by journalists, politicians, pastors, activists, and university presidents. Usually, those who reference the bending arc do so to challenge others to advance the common good. It is an exhortative refrain, as in the name of the progressive Jewish organization, Bend the Arc. Even when used to encourage action, the metaphor has attracted criticism for its seemingly groundless optimism. By invoking the arc and Dr. King’s legacy, Obama advanced a narrative of the civil rights movement that upholds the essential goodness of the American people and of the United States as an idea. Those who reject that narrative have extended their skepticism to the idea of the bending arc. In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates subverted the metaphor by bending it away from justice and toward a more tragic destination. “My understanding of the universe was physical,” he wrote, “and its moral arc bent toward chaos then concluded in a box.” In an interview in December 2016 Coates again dismissed the idea that, in his words, “we’re on the right side of history, and the arc of the moral universe bends to justice.”

From Parker to King, from Obama to Coates, the arc of the universe may or may not have bent toward justice, but the metaphor itself certainly traveled a wide and remarkably diverse path. Profound differences in context meant that the purpose and meaning of the metaphor varied over time. Did the metaphor itself bridge those differences? All metaphors perform a bridging function. By likening this to that, they do more than suggest similarity; they create new ways of thinking. Exploring the genealogy of the metaphor of the bending arc allows us to see how a particular analogy traveled between activist intellectuals and the movements that defined their lives. In the process, we can do more than assess how each figure used that particular metaphor. We can map how language linked struggles over time and space—or failed to link those struggles. The confidence with which the bending arc is often invoked obscures its complex history, as well as its strange and elusive imagery, but perhaps that is the most important challenge of the metaphor: not just to believe in a future that cannot be seen but to recognize the ambiguity of justice in our world today, to learn from that ambiguity the importance of humility and self-criticism, and yet still to have the courage, the faith, and—to use one of Obama’s favorite words—the audacity to bend the arc of the universe toward justice.

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Nico Slate

Nico Slate teaches in the Department of History at Carnegie Mellon University. His research examines struggles against racism, casteism, and imperialism in the United States and India. His most recent book is Brothers: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Race (Temple University Press, 2023).

Comments on “Hope, Faith, and Metaphor in African American History

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    Of course, King was not the first to talk about the moral arc of the universe. Radical Unitarian Theodore Parker wrote this in his 1852 sermon, “Justice and the Conscience”: 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 the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.” He was also one of the “secret six” who helped fund John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.

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