A tribute on the 50th anniversary of the start of the Selma civil rights march
March 7, 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the first attempt by civil rights activists to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Not more than six blocks into their journey they were met by Governor George Wallace’s state troopers on the now-famous Edmund Pettus Bridge, who prevented them from continuing. Two weeks later, on March 21, the non-violent freedom fighters tried again, this time protected by Army troops and Alabama National Guardsmen. After clearing the bridge they continued their march into history.
As a tribute to these champions of truth, justice, and freedom, I am posting the Prologue to my book The Moral Arc , whose title was inspired, in part, by that march and the stirring words of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., from one of his most famous speeches known as the “How Long, Not Long” speech. If you have seen the film Selma, a dramatic recreation of that pivotal event, you did not see the actor portraying Dr. King deliver that speech. Apparently the film’s producers could not obtain the rights to the speech and so wrote another speech into the film’s ending. That’s a shame, because Dr. King was one of the greatest orators in all history, and those words in particular, which I have quoted in a “fair use” way, were some of the most powerful he ever spoke. Humanity is better off for those words, for Dr. King’s work, and for the civil rights champions who marched for us all.
Prologue: Bending the Moral Arc
Sunday, March 21, 1965. Selma, Alabama.
About eight thousand people gather at Brown Chapel and begin to march from the town of Selma to the city of Montgomery, Alabama. The demonstrators are predominantly African American and they’re marching on the capitol for one reason: Justice. They want simply to be given the right to vote. But they’re not alone in their struggle. Demonstrators of “every race, religion, and class,” representing almost every state, have come to march with their black brothers and sisters. And at the front of the march is the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Nobel Prize winner, preacher, and civil rights activist, leading the march like Moses leading his people out of Egypt.
In the teeth of racial opposition backed by armed police and riot squads, they had tried to march twice before, but both times were met with violence by state troopers and a deputized posse. The first time — known as Bloody Sunday — the marchers were ordered to turn back but refused and, as onlookers cheered, they were met with tear gas, billy clubs, and rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire. The second time they were again met by a line of state troopers and ordered to turn around, and after asking for permission to pray, King led them back.
But not this time. This time President Lyndon B. Johnson, finally having seen the writing on the wall, ordered that the marchers should be protected by two thousand National Guard troops and federal marshals. And so they marched. For five days, over a span of fifty-three miles, through biting cold and frequent rain, they marched. Word spread, the number of demonstrators grew, and by the time they reached the steps of the capitol in Montgomery on March 25, their numbers had swelled to at least twenty-five thousand.
But King wasn’t allowed on the steps of the capitol—the marchers weren’t allowed on state property. Sitting in the capitol dome like Pontius Pilate, Alabama governor George Wallace refused to come out and address the marchers, and Dr. King delivered his speech from a platform constructed on a flatbed truck parked on the street in front of the building. And from that platform, King delivered his stirring anthem to freedom, first recalling how they had marched through “desolate valleys,” rested on “rocky byways,” were scorched by the sun, slept in mud, and were drenched by rains. The crowd, consisting of freedom-seeking people who had assembled from around the United States, listened intently as Dr. King implored them to remain committed to the nonviolent philosophy of civil disobedience, knowing that the patience of oppressed peoples wears thin and that our natural inclination is to hit back when struck. He asked, rhetorically, “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?” And “How long will justice be crucified and truth bear it?” In response, Dr. King offered words of counsel, comfort, and assurance, saying that no matter the obstacles it wouldn’t be long before freedom was realized because, he said, quoting religious and biblical tropes, “truth crushed to earth will rise again,” “no lie can live forever,” “you shall reap what you sow,” and “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
It was one of the greatest speeches of Dr. King’s career, and arguably one of the greatest in the history of public oratory. And it worked. Less than five months later, on August 6, 1965, President Johnson signed the voting rights act into law. It was just as Dr. King had said — the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.
Dr. King’s reference—the title inspiration for this book—comes from the nineteenth-century abolitionist preacher Theodore Parker, who penned this piece of moral optimism in 1853, at a time when, if anything, pessimism would have been more appropriate as America was inexorably sliding toward civil war over the very institution Parker sought to abolish:
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.
In The Moral Arc my aim is to show that the Reverends Parker and King were right—that the arc of the moral universe does indeed bend toward justice. In addition to religious conscience and stirring rhetoric, however, we can trace the moral arc through science with data from many different lines of inquiry, all of which demonstrate that in general, as a species, we are becoming increasingly moral. As well, I argue that most of the moral development of the past several centuries has been the result of secular not religious forces, and that the most important of these that emerged from the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment are science and reason, terms that I use in the broadest sense to mean reasoning through a series of arguments and then confirming that the conclusions are true through empirical verification.
Regarding where, exactly, Dr. King delivered his famous speech
Many accounts describe King as being either at the top of the capitol steps, on the steps, or at the bottom of the steps. There are eyewitness accounts in which it is claimed that King delivered his famous speech from the steps. For example, John N. Pawelek recalls: “When we arrived at the state capitol, the area was filled with throngs of marchers. Martin Luther King was on the steps. He gave a fiery speech which only a Baptist minister can give.” The Alabama Byways site tells its patrons reliving the Selma to Montgomery march to “walk on the steps of the capitol, where King delivered his ‘How Long, Not Long’ speech to a crowd of nearly 30,000 people.
In his book Getting Better: Television and Moral Progress (Transaction Publishers, 1991, p. 48), Henry J. Perkinson writes: “By Thursday, the marchers, who now had swelled to twenty-five thousand, reached Montgomery, where the national networks provided live coverage as Martin Luther King strode up the capital [sic] steps with many of the movement’s heroes alongside. From the top of the steps, King delivered a stunning address to the nation.” Even the Martin Luther King Encyclopedia puts him “on the steps.”
This is incorrect. The BBC reports of the day, for example, say that King “has taken a crowd of nearly 25,000 people to the steps of the state capital” but was stopped from climbing the steps and so “addressed the protesters from a podium in the square.” The New York Times reports that “The Alabama Freedom March from Selma to Montgomery ended shortly after noon at the foot of the Capitol steps” and that “the rally never got on to state property. It was confined to the street in front of the steps.”