The Arc of the Universe Bends Toward Justice


We began Black History Month by looking at Muhammad Ali, an under-appreciated hero of non-conformity in U.S. history.

I thought we’d close by looking at a quotation from Martin Luther King that I’ve always liked:


“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”


The life of MLK makes for a fascinating study in leadership. He is a universal hero now, but during his life he had no shortage of enemies. In addition to the stated enemies of discrimination and bigotry, he also had to worry about infighting, backbiting, suspicion from the government, and friends who left him. In some ways I think being thrown in jail is an easier hardship, because at least then you know who to be afraid of and what to expect.

Towards the end of his life, King began to speak out on issues beyond the Civil Rights Movement. He talked about poverty in terms of social class instead of just race, and he criticized America’s war in Vietnam (much to the consternation of President Johnson).

Dr. King was a master at speaking to different audiences simultaneously through the use of phrasing and the choice of examples. I’d encourage you to listen to one of his best speeches, The Drum-Major Instinct. You can hear the whole speech here (39 minutes, opens new window). In this talk he defends personal ambition as a force for good, closing with the statement:

We all have the drum major instinct. We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade…. And the great issue of life is to harness the drum major instinct. It is a good instinct if you don’t distort it and pervert it.

Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be the first in love. I want you to be the first in moral excellence. I want you to be the first in generosity.

The challenge with King’s work is that it’s difficult to improve on it directly because it was so comprehensive. Instead of looking back, I think it’s better to look at our current world and think about how a “drum major for justice” would respond.

We have to look at our present challenges and shortcomings. How will people judge us a generation from now?

That’s why I think the rich have a moral responsibility to care for the poor, especially in terms of meeting basic needs of clean water and healthcare. That’s why we have to think of our involvement with the other seven billion people on the planet as a primary concern, not something we consider only after our own needs are met.

Thankfully, as King argued, history tends to move in the right direction over time: the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. I offer my gratitude and respect to MLK and the other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.

What are you doing to further the path towards justice?


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  • Suset says:

    Well said on the King. I love what you say about being able to speak to different audiences at once. This is a rare gift and what made him so powerful.

    Aside from King, I also love Bayard Rustin as a leader in charisma and nonconformism. He was one of the founders of CORE and spearheaded the March on Washington. Rustin is rarely recognized (including by King) because he was openly gay. To me, this man was the epitome of non-conformism. He refused to fit one particular box, spoke against all injustices and was a pacifist. I think he is right up your alley. I hope it’s Ok I use this forum to send him a shoutout. Here is one of my favorite quotes by him: ““To be afraid is to behave as if the truth were not true.”

  • Matt Langdon says:

    Once again, I think you should be writing my site instead of me. The second paragraph you shared of MLK’s speech is a perfect introduction to the life of a hero. It’s okay to want to be in the limelight, but the hero doesn’t strive for that – instead they strive for fixing the problems of others.

    Thanks, as always, for getting me to think more about my subject.

  • Karen says:

    Martin Luther King was and continues to be a formidable example of someone who stands for justice, peace and humanity. Regardless of skin colour, religion or ethnicity, we can all learn a lot from this man.

    I try daily to live my life free of prejudice and fight it when I am faced with it. But there is so much more that I could be doing. Even when we think we’ve done enough, there’s more to be done. If we all lived our lives trying to support humanity rather than take it down, we’d all be better off. I believe and hope that most of us do live our lives this way.

  • Wilson Usman says:

    that’s a really good question to ask. I always do my best to be honest with people and help as much in leading people to do what they love and what matters. I believe I’m a leader and it’s my responsibility to help them their true passion.

    I respect great men like MLK as well, they are good examples of people who fought for what they believed in.

  • Ericka says:

    This speech by Dr. King shows that he was non conformist even within his own movement. He was always fighting for social justice in the broader terms, but he started with civil rights. But he was an anti war, poverty, pro union activist. The other reason that this speech is fantastic is b/c it underlies why MLK day is dedicated to service. The exact line is : “And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. (Amen) That’s a new definition of greatness.”
    Service to Greatness, now that is something to aspire to.

  • Dr. Chris says:

    I love MLK. A leader of dreamers.

    I’m not sure what else I could do to further the path to justice besides living a life based on principals and values.

    Compassion, integrity, responsibility dominate all of my thoughts and actions. Standing like a rock in these contexts is contagious, where others will soon desire and pursue your strength.

    Thank you Chris.

  • Michelle says:

    I love the quote about the arc of the universe; it’s one of my favorites.

    I’ve never heard/read that speech you quoted – going to go listen to it later. I love the selection that you put here. So many people act like it’s a bad thing to want to be great or want to be a leader – that it will inevitably turn to egoism, selfishness, and treating other people badly – but as long as it’s rooted in the right emotions (and who can argue with love, moral excellence, & generosity?) the drive to be great can be a powerful tool.

    “How will people think of us a generation from now?” is a great question to ask when choosing whether to stand out or stay in line.

  • Mike says:

    One of my favorite quotes from MLK is “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Could someone kindly explain the difference between social justice and equal justice. Thank you

  • Laura Lee Bloor says:

    What a timely post, Chris. I feel a bit as if I’m fighting for justice on a local level.
    I’m in the middle of arguing with the City of San Clemente and its Community Center representatives for the right to put on the first V-Day San Clemente event. The events are benefit performances of “The Vagina Monologues” that will go to a local women’s shelter, Laura’s House, and the V-Day spotlight campaign, which is the women and girls of Haiti.

    Basically the city wants to charge the private event rate, which is double the rate for a nonprofit event. I keep trying to explain that by charging me the higher rate, the city is keeping the money that is meant for and should go to the women and children of Laura’s House and Haiti.

    This last week has been a struggle for sure, and it will all come to a head tomorrow when my balance for the San Clemente Community Center is due. No matter what, the show will go on, and hopefully the bureaucrats will come to their senses.

  • jerry says:

    The Rainbow of justice begins in Madison Wisconsin today. If MLK was with us now I believe he would be marching for union rights in Wisconsin.

  • Matt Langdon says:

    Hey Suset – I just added Bayard Rustin to my Gallery of Heroes. The guy was amazing and, as you said, got no recognition because he didn’t conform.

  • Brigitte says:

    Chris- Your emphasis on service is what separates you from the pack.

    What am I doing? I volunteer with Chicago Cares (this is the first year in a looong time I wasn’t available on MLK Jr Day, which made me so sad!), I donate a portion of my income to various causes, I am politically active. But, more importantly, I am careful with my language. Too often, thoughtless use of phrases reinforce inequality (that’s so gay, you’re so retarded, and so many more). Our words do more than give voice to our inner thoughts, they reinforce them. For good and for bad.

  • Alisa Clickenger says:

    Thanks for the great perspective on MLK.

    My drum major instinct leads me to volunteer to talk to groups about my travels around the world on a motorcycle. Traveling by motorcbike, I am perceived as more ‘vulnerable’…I am out in the open, available to talk to people, and my choice of two wheeled travel is an open curiosity to folks around the globe.

    I am able to glean insights from my unique perspective, and then come back home and share them with others…hopefully inspiring them to travel and understand the world on their own.

    I hope I serve as a role model that has broken out of the “box”, and is living a life I love. I think when we come from that empowered, I’m-living-the-life-I-am-chooing-to-live place in our lives, we are most able to be open and come from that loving place that MLK spoke about.

  • Linda says:

    I always feel melancholic when I read MLK quotes. I’ve often said, “if he were alive today, I don’t know that he’d be comforted by the progress of social justice, and the path towards a colorblind society.”

    Be that as it may, it’s always a worthy goal to strive for.

    I work in mental health, and today I will work extra hard to make sure that some of the undocumented high school students get the social services they so desperately need to graduate, and to support their mental well-being.

    Beautifully written post and message. Thanks for providing an inspiring Monday morning message, Chris.

  • Alex Blackwell says:

    I object to racially-charged jokes and tell the person the joke is inappropriate and unacceptable.

  • Fiona says:

    I read the other day that King received a ‘C’ at school for public speaking. Obviously he didn’t take it to heart.

  • lydia says:

    I raised amazing two sons who contribute to this world greatly: firefighter/medic who saves many lives and police officer who strives to be the best in his service in very poor neighborhood. I work in regular corporate job and in evening study and teach yoga. Helping people feel better and be more present is where my passion is. My finance Richard and I strive to treat every human being with respect and without judgment…

  • Kai says:

    I’m with Matt the second paragraph of MLK’s speech is a perfect introduction to the life of a hero.
    I personally like to have fun while furthering the path towards justice. I want to explore how we can be real life superheroes. Nothing wrong with donning a fly superhero outfit once in a while. 🙂

  • Heather Marsten says:

    I am sorry to find that even MLK is being censored. I have an Afro-American pastor who was asked to speak to a MLK event in Woodstock. He read the “I have a dream speech.” The people gathered were upset for it spoke of God and was a love not hate speech. He has not been asked back since. Funny that a speech written by MLK is banned from his celebration.

  • John Sherry says:

    He certainly could see the promised land and how peoples everywhere now strike out against oppresive rule. Justice is the truth revealed and today it is being revealed at a faster rate than ever before. Maybe we all thought mankind’s great leap forwards in the mind was techonology when in reality it is for liberty and fairness for all. I hope so, I dream so, and I try to act so. We need to do justice ourselves to Martin Luther’s sacrifice and spirit and be “free at last”.

  • Kevin Ball says:

    Great post Chris, thanks!

    I think an important part of this is role models. The media idolizes people who have used their drum-major impulse to become extremely rich and powerful. We need more alternate role models of people who have used that impulse for good, to create a better world… role models that show that being successful and caring for others are not mutually exclusive.

    That said, I’m not sure how to think about the interaction between role models and nonconformity. To some extent, nonconformity means breaking away from the traditional roles and role models… and yet, you yourself are serving as a role model for others considering a break from conformity. How do you think about role models? Do you see yourself as one? And who are yours? Thanks,


  • Austin L. Church says:

    I wish I were doing more for justice. I write for Knoxville’s street paper to increase awareness of the issues surrounding homelessness in our city. I try to eat local and organic foods to decrease my ecological footprint and put my money somewhere other than industrial farming. I try to buy clothing produced according to ethical guidelines. I donate to various charities. Some of my favorites include, Charity:Water, International Justice Mission, Save the Children, and Heifer International. I write poetry and prose, and my arc always seems to return to that horsefly Justice. I guess justice starts with the very next person I encounter, so I pray that God would first change me so that what that person encounters is love. I pray that I would be willing to suffer for my enemies. I pray that God will forgive my complicity in various forms and systems of injustice simply by having been born in the U.S.A. during the 20th century to a white, middle-class, Christian family

  • Austin L. Church says:

    How do I bring justice to this world? I write for The Amplifier, Knoxville’s street paper, and try to build awareness about issues surrounding Knoxville’s homeless population. I try to buy local and organic foods to reduce my ecological footprint and to keep from supporting industrial agriculture. I try to buy ethical clothing. I give to charity. Some of my favorites include Charity:Water, International Justice Mission, Save the Children,, and Heifer International. I guess justice starts with the very next person I encounter, so I ask God to change my heart and fill it with love so that people encounter someone worth listening to. I ask God for forgiveness for my complicity in various forms and systems of injustice simply by being a white male born to a middle-class Christian family in the U.S.A. in the twentieth century. I do what I know to do which is to pray for God to move and to write poetry and prose that paint a picture of a healed world.

  • Someone says:

    And what a stark contrast Dr. King’s focus on freedom is with the current actions of the United States congress against women’s rights RIGHT THIS MINUTE.

    There is a lot of talk of Wisconsin and Egypt and unions and dictatorships everywhere…but right NOW, in the 21st Century, our own US politicians are trying to roll back the rights of women to a level more appropriate to Afghanistan than this so-called bastion of freedom. Is this our example to the rest of the world? For shame!

    We women have to stop accepting others’ insistence that we should wait our turn and get in line behind men when it comes to rights and freedoms. The argument is 100% bogus, and a ploy to keep us under paternalistic control with false promises.

    *I* accept the moral responsibility to fight for women’s rights because let’s face it – without them, “freedom” is a SHAM.

  • Matt Langdon says:

    Kai – if you’re looking for how to be real life superheroes, I’d love to hear what you think of my Hero Handbook. Link on my name… I’m moving into practical advice, starting today.

  • David Pancost says:

    May I offer a different perspective (one that hopefully broadens our thinking)?

    First of all, Chris, you’ve touched on a subject that is near and dear to my heart. Nothing makes it beat more passionately than the fight for justice and freedom.

    We fail, however, when we keep addressing the symptom and not the root cause for injustice. Causes like corruption in governments that oppress the people and keep them dependent and unable to provide their own solutions to various problems. Also making people dependent on our gifts rather than helping them learn to create their own solutions.

    The old proverb “Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish you feed him for a lifetime.” holds true here. Yes, I believe in giving, but what are we giving — temporary relief, or permanent independence and real solutions.

    The fight for social justice requires deep thought and real risk, not platitudes and giving to relieve a guilty conscience. Just thinking out loud. 🙂

  • Shirley says:

    Chris, I am grateful to you for posting this sermon. I listened to the whole thing and loved it and needed to hear it. As I write a childhood memoir, this idea of the drum-major instinct helps me understand one of my most difficult struggles–how to find a way to combine the strong service/humility ethic I grew up in with my innate desire to stand out, be noticed, and lead. King explains it with passion. He lived it with amazing grace.

  • April says:

    I’ve been waking up from my own “dream” for the past couple of years, shifting from money as a definition of success to experiences to… maybe something more like “virtue”. It’s a work in progress.

    For those of us wondering what we could do more of, I’ll share two things I encountered this past week that might answer that question. Four Years. Go. is a movement to create a tipping point (that “bend towards justice”) of sustainability, spirituality & equality by 2014 and Awakening the Dreameris a thing Pachamama and others came up with rather awhile ago along the same vein. They moved me quite a bit. They might move you.

  • Beverley Golden says:

    Thanks for this post Chris! I believe that by living with integrity of word and by embodying and envisioning the possibilities for peace, justice and freedom, we contribute to shifting consciousness. We can each do this daily in our own ways.

    I’ve personally been challenged by the desire to stand out or be unique in a world that accepts average and ordinary as the norms, but I’m beginning to see that we all have our own uniqueness and it is the inner light we shine out, that makes us stand out in the world.

  • Babz says:

    This is one of the most insightful quotes of the King and I admire it deeply. I started a non-profit organization in my community to help provide language skills to illiterate community member. I also lead a college service organization and lead conversation groups for Adults on week nights. I think it’s everyone’s obligation to to give back whatever they can whether it’s time or resources to better the world. It’s so important to place the needs of the world on an equal stance as the personal. For a long time, I put service before my own needs, then the other way around only to realize that there should be a balance between the two. I would sum up the kings words as: be the drum leader but remember to give the drum maintenance and play a song you’re proud of.

  • Gwyn says:

    Beautiful and important post! Amen to Dr. King and to you Chris for your emphasis on social awareness and service. Indeed this separates you from the pack. What hits me is

    “That’s why I think the rich have a moral responsibility to care for the poor, especially in terms of meeting basic needs of clean water and healthcare. That’s why we have to think of our involvement with the other seven billion people on the planet as a primary concern, not something we consider only after our own needs are met.”

    I have been focused on the environment and give to clean water and tree conservation, but my income is making a minuscule difference. This year I am changing my focus a bit to reach out to the wealthy and raise money that can truly make a difference. My vision is not clear yet but you are a main inspiration!
    Thanks always for you wisdom and generosity!

  • Jon says:

    In the 1700’s the American founding fathers were greatly influenced by what was known as enlightened self-interest. Madison, Jefferson, Washington, Hamilton, and others, all believed that is was okay, even good, to be extremely ambitious and even to strive for fame; if the ambition was attached to a greater purpose than the individual and for the benefit of others. And the ideas that they empowered still act as a positive force in the world today. Unfortunately this kind of self-interest fell out of favor and became viewed as ‘sinful’ by many in the 19Th and 20Th centuries. So it was inspiring to hear MLK’s words. And that’s one of the reason I enjoy Chris’s website so much. The idea that we can do what we love and change the world. Those words have become my mantra. That idea harnesses natural human instincts in a positive and fun way.

  • Jeannette lucas says:

    He inspired millions to take the most difficult of all paths the one of being first in Love, Justice, and Peace, this path I feel is not for the timid of heart, listening to this today made me remembered of another great human being that shed some light to our darken world Ghandi, here is that quote:
    “Peace will not come out of a clash of arms, but out of Justice lived and done by unarmed nations in the face of odds”. I believe that we re entering a new paradigm and these words will become actions because the new young generation is not afraid, fear is no longer the currency of governments to intimidate and imprisoned it’s people. Truth, Justice, Love and Truth will reign supreme.

  • Luke Martin says:

    How do I fight against injustice?

    I educate people about injustices that are going on throughout the world. People are shocked to find that there are more slaves in the world right now than at any other point in history. Most of them are sex slaves caught in human trafficking. Other injustices are child soldiers, child labor, lack of clean drinking water, unfair treatment of women, religious oppression.

    I’m running a school that will train people how to deal with these issues, then take them out in the world to places where they are happening. The only way to solve injustice is to change the hearts of the people involved in it. You can’t fight corruption if there’s nothing better than corruption to turn too. You have to give hope and an answer.

  • David Willis says:

    Thanks for sharing this Chris. Martin Luther King was a pioneer with vision and courage. Thanks for what you do.

  • Chelsea Bell Eady says:

    Thanks for this reminder Chris. I grew up in Hells Kitchen in the 70s and 80s, and I remember being moved to tears by this speech when it was played at the New York Public Library in one of the film rooms. MLKs vision was life changing for me. What a gift.

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