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The arc of the moral universe bends toward justice

The statement by MLK, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” has always resonated with me, perhaps because it is both aspirational and hopeful. My friend in Tucson, when weighing those words, chose a chilling image lifted from the Holocaust of a very old Jewish man, his shoulders covered in a prayer shawl, kneeling before a pit. A German officer stood behind him, pointing a pistol at his head. The very existence of that photo I understood to be my friend’s rebuttal.

I acknowledge that when thinking about the presence of a moral universe, I also reflect on the Holocaust and about those who, like the officer, enabled a grotesque regime to create an infrastructure of evil that will forever remain inexplicable and a stark refutation.

I mentioned NYT columnist Charles Blow, who clearly judged the very existence of slavery to be a mirror of that German officer about to execute the old man. Blow, relying on the words of the Rev. Robert Walsh, describes in harrowing detail the month-long journey of kidnapped Africans on a slave ship, while pondering the depths of the inhumanity and unrestrained cruelty that defined the Middle Passage.

Below deck, Walsh found people crowded so tightly that “there was no possibility of their lying down. The heat of those horrid places was so great and the odor so offensive that it was quite impossible to enter them, even had there been room.”

Blow struggles to comprehend what Walsh revealed. “These people,” he writes, “these human beings, sat in their own vomit, urine and feces, and that of others. Many of the enslaved, sick or driven mad, were thrown overboard. Others simply jumped.”

This was the beginning. And what followed upon their arrival — the auctions, forced labor, the reduction of men and women and children to mere chattel — was equally monstrous, representing an absence of humanity that even now defies understanding.

These slaves were the antecedents of a people. Americans. And this remains forever their legacy, a history of devastating, fragmenting trauma, and the recipients of an enduring rage, an unbridled violence, or a stunning prejudicial indifference that even a civil war could not dissuade. This entrenched, distorted prism was later made manifest in Jim Crow laws, poll taxes, Confederate war flags, ubiquitous monuments to treason, symbols all of a still deeply embedded racism that shrivels the soul and shrouds the conscience of a nation.

How to understand this disabling virus that stalks our ideals, puts the lie to the aspirational language written as promises in our Constitution?

Perhaps, as my friend in Tucson wrote, we, as a people, possess only a patina of civility and are, at our core, merely primates and when push comes to shove we are reminded of our true nature.

Indeed, our species’ history is one of astonishing inhumanity. A challenge to MLK’s words. However, I would argue that our story can also be found in our relentless struggle to transcend our too often reflexive cruelty or absence of compassion.

That was the essence of the protests against that knee on the neck of George Floyd. We search to find our better impulses, to embrace our better selves, to live by the rule of law, and to judge one another by the content of our character and not the color of our skin or gender, given or chosen. That is the through line from John Lewis to those who stood peacefully in the streets and said, “enough!”

I think the conversation I am having with my friend is also taking place in America. The outcome will be expressed in less than 100 days and it is then we will know if the arc of a moral universe does indeed bend toward justice.

Chris Honoré is an Ashland Tidings columnist.