By Talia Floyd
Dr. Whitehead 2016 Distinguished Alumni Award recipient of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies
Dr. Karsonya (Kaye) Wise Whitehead is an associate professor at Loyola University Maryland in the Communication Department. Her teaching and research focuses on the intersections of race, class, and gender. Whitehead is the Founding Executive Director of The Emilie Frances Davis Center for Education, Research, and Culture; author of four books; an award-winning former Baltimore City middle school teacher, winning the 2006-07 Maryland History Teacher of the Year Award; and, a three time New York Emmy nominated documentary filmmaker.
I often wonder what the older generations have left for us. Sometimes it seems all they have given us, is a massive to do list: climate change, racism, heteropatriarchy, unsustainable economies etc. I’m sure you can think of plenty of other grievances that I haven’t listed. It can feel like an endless burden, seemingly insurmountable. Theodore Parker wrote “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 ofsight, I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.” If something about the quote seems familiar it should come at no great surprise.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. also famously referenced the moral arc of the universe and just a couple weeks ago, those of us who had the privilege to hear Whitehead speak, heard her invoke these phrases as well. So while most of us don’t know him by name, many have unconsciously encountered his rhetoric. Theodore Parker was an abolitionist preacher born in 1810, just six years before John G. Fee, Berea’s founder and abolitionist preacher. These days irate conservatives might call him a “social justice warrior” for his activism fueled by a commitment to abolition and to the intersecting problems of class and race.
King first cited the phrase in an article for the The Gospel Messenger writing, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The phrase also found it’s way into several of his speeches. While King is often quoted and cited, the version of him that we encounter during Black History month is not always representative of the man himself.
Geoff Gilbert of Salon said, “Most will politely ignore the more radical currents of King’s vision, his activism for living wage jobs as a human right and an end to U.S. imperialism abroad; ideas that remain outside mainstream American thought to this day.” King was known as an agitator in the eyes of the establishment. Many of his beliefs are considered radical even today. Since King’s usage, “The moral arc of the universe” has found a way into ts fair share of speeches and articles.
It has been decontextualized to the point that in some cases it takes on a passive air. No one has to do anything, the universe will handle justice. An invisible force that creates inevitable positive change.This sentiment of passive change is a dangerous one in a world that is rapidly changing in ways not always to the benefit of those of who have to live with the consequences.
When Whitehead invoked the phrase, she called it back to it’s roots; to the abolitionist, to the organizer, to action. She quoted King, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” She followed with, “I am just not sure we are all on the side of the universe.”
After convocation, Whitehead spoke of the deep roots of the quote, how King was informed by Parker; thus, a call to an assertive form of action steeped in the rich history of leaders in the fight against oppression.
Whitehead’s talk connected those that came before with the movements that exist today and served as a reminder that justice can never “just happened”; it has always been hard won.
Already, the evidence of the fragility of justice is being made known under the Trump Administration. Whitehead said “We are not expecting you to save us, we are expecting you to save yourselves,” and our generation is rising to the challenge. The generations before us have expanded upon a pre existing legacy in the same way that Parker, King and Whitehead have adopted and adapted an understanding of justice in the universe.