On Martin Luther King Day 2018, Bending the Arc Toward Justice

  • by:
    • Jonathan Greenblatt, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League
  • January 15, 2017
    This article originally appeared in

On the 89th birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., we reach back to Dr. King’s teachings for inspiration in these extraordinary times. We search for the light to drive out the darkness and hope for the ideals of our nation to prevail.

In front of 20,000 people who had marched for equality, and during a time of crushing poverty and racist laws and policies affecting many African-Americans, Dr. King famously asked in 1965: “How long will it take?” And then he answered his own question, paraphrasing abolitionist Theodore Parker: “Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Dr. King believed in the collective power of individual action, that it could propel us forward along the arc toward equality. And that the systemic inequality at the core of America did not afford anyone the option of standing idly by.

These words and teachings have held a special significance over the past year. There are many reminders that this is far from a normal chapter in our country’s history. Hate crimes are on the rise; marginalized communities are threatened; cruel and discriminatory federal policies threaten to undermine our progress and the values of our country; and racist rhetoric literally flows from the highest levels of power.

In just the past year, the Trump Administration has created not just one, but three Muslim bans. It has rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, leaving the lives of hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants hanging in the balance. It has taken deliberate steps to block young immigrant women from accessing abortion services. It has trampled over traditional norms of respecting safe spaces by increasing immigration enforcement in hospitals, courthouses, and even schools.

The administration has taken steps to effectively legalize discrimination against LGBTQ federal employees and to bar transgender soldiers from enlisting in the military. It has emboldened extremists and white nationalists with no ostensible regret. The president himself publicly has assailed individuals who selflessly serve their country. He repeatedly has attacked the validity of the courts and the legitimacy of the press. I could go on, but suffice to say that the damage is widespread.

Many of us feel compelled to push back and preserve our democratic values in the face of such fury. We are doing so with all our might — and the challenge seems to grow harder each day. However, we know from long experience that the arc does not bend toward justice by itself. You see, history is not written by those who passively accept reality or by those who simply respond to it, but rather, by those who actively shape it.

Thus it has been encouraging to see how, at nearly every opportunity, the resilience of our democracy has manifested itself. Communities have come together to respond to hate incidents. Coalitions have been formed to push back against discrimination. Our free press has pressed on and spoken truth to power. Houses of worship have opened their doors to all who have sought refuge. Courts have interceded, most recently to protect DACA itself. Brave women have broken silence and told their stories. People from all walks of life have marched. And more citizens have stepped forward to run for office. Taken together, we collectively have refused to look away and allow for the rollback of civil rights. We have labored to prevent the normalization of the abnormal. And every step that we have taken contributes to bending that arc just a little bit further toward justice.

This is possible because Americans are connected to each other not by lineage or parentage but by their commitment to shared ideals. America is a country imagined and realized by dreamers and doers, entrepreneurs and innovators, and immigrants and refugees who sought a better life in a new land. People building businesses, creating community, forging livelihoods and doing so side-by-side, animated by shared hopes and common dreams. This is the creed that has always made America great.

Dr. King understood this fact. This is why he said that human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. He knew that the quest for justice demanded “sacrifice, suffering and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals” from all walks of life. So yes the dangers are real and the threats are potent. And yet, we will not be silent nor static in these times. We will drive.

On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we must renew our vows to protect the country that we love. We must recommit to basic values such as the equity of every person. We must reaffirm our collective power to defend those who are vulnerable.

And so we will stand firm with the 800,000 DACA recipients at risk of losing their status. We will stand firm with people of color across the country whose voting rights are threatened by exclusionary racist laws. We will stand firm with the 200,000 Salvadorans whose lives have been upended. We will stand firm with LGBTQ communities under siege. We will stand firm with the brave women across the country fighting discrimination and harassment.

And together, every one of us who opts to keep fighting the good fight can make a difference in bending that arc closer to justice and equality.