Fifty years ago yesterday Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed a crowd of 20,000 people, many of whom had marched for a week from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to advocate for voting rights. Their arrival was triumphant, after the first attempt had left the non-violent marchers bloodied and beaten—but not defeated—by police officers in Selma two-and-a-half weeks before. As he stood on the steps of the capitol building in Montgomery and reflected on the journey of the civil rights movement, Dr. King rhetorically asked, “How long will it take?” and famously answered, “Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
As with any long arc, it is almost impossible to see progress from up close. Each small, incremental change seems insignificant from that vantage point. Yet taking a step back and looking at the trajectory over the past 50 years reveals how every small step has contributed to bending the arc just a little bit further towards justice.
Today, the United States has the first African American president and there are almost seven times as many African American elected officials as there were in 1970, when researchers first began tracking the numbers. The 2012 election marked the first election in which African Americans voted at a higher rate than whites. None of that would have been possible without the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which in turn would never have come to be without the tireless, daily efforts of countless individuals. From the Freedom Riders who risked their lives to register voters, to the people who fearlessly faced police officers with billy clubs and tear gas on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, to the advocates who lobbied for passage of the bill and the lawyers who argued in court for it to be upheld, each had a small part in bending the arc.
In other areas of civil rights, too, each incremental step seems small up close but contributes to the greater trajectory. Today, as the United States hopefully stands on the eve of marriage equality for all, it is clear that many small steps combined to get us here. From the protesters at Stonewall to the seven couples who brought a case in Massachusetts that would ultimately make it the first state with marriage equality, from the members of the LGBT community who came out when it was very difficult to do so to their allies who spoke up and spoke out about LGBT rights, each person and action had a small part to play. In the area of women’s rights, the women who convened a meeting in Seneca Falls to write the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, the suffragettes, the women who had careers long before it was socially accepted, those who courageously came forward to speak about sexual harassment, and the men who supported equal pay for equal work all put small cracks in the glass ceiling. Together, all the advocates, activists, allies, and people who simply spoke up played a part in bending the arc.
The lessons of Selma are about securing the fundamental right to vote for all and civil rights more broadly. But they are also about what can happen over time if each person plays a part in advancing civil rights, speaking up for social justice, and moving the ball forward just the tiniest bit. Fifty years after Selma, we are much further along the arc and much closer to a perfect union, but each of us has a role to play every day in determining the trajectory from here.