“How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice;” Martin Luther King, Montgomery, 1965 – Martin Luther King Day

Note:  though this blog is primarily prompted by lessons learned in business books, I also present synopses of books on social justice, and post about that subject also.  This post is for Martin Luther King Day.


On March 25, 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke under the shadow of the Capitol Building in Montgomery, Alabama.  He had been part of a march from Selma to Montgomery.

It was a tense time.  The large march in which he participated was preceded by an aborted march, dubbed “Bloody Sunday.” People were beaten.  There was one person killed, Jimmie Lee Jackson.  And, in the midst of that time, a young white woman civil-rights activist, Viola Fauver Liuzzo, was killed.

My wife and I have taken our own Civil Rights Tour over the last few years on our vacations. We’ve been to Atlanta, Birmingham, Selma, Montgomery, Little Rock, and Memphis.  We walked across the bridge in Selma.  The bridge still stands, or course, still named for a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.

I grew up, in my earliest years, in Jacksonville, Florida.  It was long after I left there that I learned that the very elementary school I attended was partially named for a Ku Klux Klan leader in Florida.

On that day in 1965, when Dr. King and many fellow marchers arrived in Montgomery, the nation was in great turmoil  Putting it simply, white people in the South – both Democrats and Republicans – wanted to keep the Jim Crow segregationist laws in place.

How deep was the desire to do so?   Here’s an example:  Robert Byrd, a Democrat in Congress, an organizer and leader for his Ku Klux Klan chapter, had written to a Senator from Mississippi Klansman in 1944:

I shall never fight in the armed forces with a negro by my side … Rather I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds. — Robert C. Byrd, in a letter to Sen. Theodore Bilbo (D-MS), 1944 (Yes, Mr. Byrd apologized later; many times).

There were still plenty of people with such sentiments in 1965 Alabama, and throughout the South.

Under the portico at the Alabama State Capitol, there is a marker designating the spot where Jefferson Davis was sworn in as the President of the Confederate States of America.  It was on that spot that George Wallace gave his inaugural address in Janaury, 1963: “segregation nowsegregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

Dr. King stood a few feet from that spot, and delivered his speech, Our God is Marching On.  (Read the full speech here), in March of 1965.

King, MontgomeryHe ended his speech with these words. (I encourage you to read these lines carefully):

I know you are asking today, “How long will it take?” (Speak, sir) Somebody’s asking, “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?” Somebody’s asking, “When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?” Somebody’s asking, “When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, (Speak, speak, speak) plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and the manacles of death? How long will justice be crucified, (Speak) and truth bear it?” (Yes, sir)

I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, (Yes, sir) however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, (No sir) because “truth crushed to earth will rise again.” (Yes, sir)

How long? Not long, (Yes, sir) because “no lie can live forever.” (Yes, sir)
How long? Not long, (All right. How long) because “you shall reap what you sow.” (Yes, sir)
How long? (How long?) Not long: (Not long)
Truth forever on the scaffold, (Speak)
Wrong forever on the throne, (Yes, sir)
Yet that scaffold sways the future, (Yes, sir)
And, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow,
Keeping watch above his own.

How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. (Yes, sir)

How long? Not long, (Not long) because:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; (Yes, sir)
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; (Yes)
He has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword; (Yes, sir)
His truth is marching on. (Yes, sir)
He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat; (Speak, sir)
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat. (That’s right)
O, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! Be jubilant my feet!
Our God is marching on. (Yeah)

Glory, hallelujah! (Yes, sir) Glory, hallelujah! (All right)
Glory, hallelujah! Glory, hallelujah!
His truth is marching on. [Applause]

This particular line was remembered throughout the Obama Presidency because it was one of the phrases on the custom-made rug in the Oval Office: the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

After Dr. King’s speech in Montgomery, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed, and it finally became possible for African Americans in the South to actually vote.  Before this, poll taxes, literacy tests, threats of violence, and actual lynchings kept the black vote in the very, very low percentages.  This changed things.

At the end of the video of Dr. King’s speech (the video is at the end of this post), the camera pans out to the crowd.  This was ground zero for Southern racism.  Down the street, visible though blurry, is the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where a young Pastor named Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the meeting the night of the arrest of Rosa Parks, December 1, 1955, which launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Just a bit further down the street from the Capitol, past the church, stands a plaque, noting the spot where Rosa Parks was arrested.  Turn right at about the spot of the plaque, walk a couple of blocks, and you come the place where black human beings were once off-loaded from boats and sold into slavery.

And it was here that Dr. King gave one of many speeches, after the beatings, and bombings, and lynchings, and so many more threats, and called yet again for the arc of the universe to bend toward justice.

And just over three years later, Dr. King was dead, murdered by, as Jemele Hill tweeted this morning: Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered by white supremacy. That’s it. That’s the tweet.

Martin Luther King Day reminds us of our evil past; commemorates a heroic leader; and reminds us that the pursuit of justice is never ending. And so we go forth with the message that there is still so very much work to be done.

Note: there are many good ways to act, in a way that makes a difference for the better, to commemorate Martin Luther King Day. Since I read that the fine and court fees for Rosa Parks, for her arrest on December 1, 1955, totaled $14.00, I have been making two donations a month of $14.00 each.  One to the Equal Justice Initiative (the organization started by Bryan Stevenson); the other $14.00 donation to CitySquare, a nonprofit in Dallas.  May I encourage you to pick a nonprofit striving for justice, and make a similar donation regularly?!


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