Theodore Parker And The 'Moral Universe'

In talking about the new rug in the Oval Office on Wednesday, we mentioned several historical quotes woven into the rug, including one from Martin Luther King Jr.: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." A number of listeners pointed out that King was in fact echoing the words of 19th century abolitionist and Unitarian minister Theodore Parker. NPR's Melissa Block talks to Clayborne Carson — a professor of history at Stanford University and director of the Martin Luther King Junior Research and Education Institute — about Parker, and about King's use of favorite sayings.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Yesterday on the program, we talked about the new rug that's part of the makeover of the Oval Office. Woven around the border are some of President Obama's favorite historical quotes, including one from Martin Luther King, Jr.: The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

Well, several of you wrote in to correct that attribution, pointing out that the original source of that quote was in fact the 19th-century Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker of Massachusetts.

Professor Clayborne Carson joins us to talk about the quote and its history. He is the founding director of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. Professor Carson, welcome to the program.

Professor CLAYBORNE CARSON (Professor of History, Stanford University): Good to be talking to you.

BLOCK: And this quote, the arc of the moral universe quote, is one that Dr. King used many times, including during the march from Selma in 1965. He was answering the question: How long will it take to see social justice? Let's listen to a bit of that.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: How long? Not long because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. How long? Not long.

BLOCK: Professor Carson, when else did Dr. King talk about the arc of the moral universe?

Prof. CARSON: Oh, on many occasions and usually as part of a series of quotes from abolitionists, ministers and activists from the 19th century. And that's not surprising.

I mean, the 19th century anti-slavery movement, until the 20th-century civil rights struggle, was one of the great social movements in American history. And of course, it had its intellectual side. It had its ideas, these wonderful ideas that were usually expressed through oratory.

So King was borrowing from that tradition. He was borrowing from Frederick Douglass. He was borrowing from many different sources, including Lincoln.

BLOCK: Well, you have brought in a part of the 1853 sermon by Theodore Parker, the abolitionist minister. Can you read the part that Dr. King then used and made it his own?

Prof. CARSON: 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 experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.

As you can see, the Parker quote is not as concise as what King made it in his own speech, and often, that is the case. When people use quotes from others, they paraphrase, and sometimes, they make it better. Sometimes they make it less effective.

BLOCK: Now, many times in his speeches, Dr. King did attribute sources of quotes. He would mention Thomas Carlyle or William Cullen Bryant. Did he also mention Theodore Parker by name?

Prof. CARSON: I don't recall him mentioning him by name. He may well have. Often what happens is the first time they use a quote, the do cite it. The second time, it's probably someone once said. And then the last time, it's as I've said previously. So it goes through a process in which the person kind of incorporates that into their own oratory.

And as King became more famous, the fact that he said it became more important than the fact that somebody might have said it many years before.

BLOCK: You know, Professor Carson, there is an interesting footnote here. We're talking about Theodore Parker, and there's another speech from him in 1850 that included these words: a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people, which of course became part of the Gettysburg Address. And those words are also woven into President Obama's Oval Office rug that we were talking about yesterday. So Theodore Parker has lineage to not one but two of the five quotes on that rug.

Prof. CARSON: That's right. And these are probably two of the most familiar quotes for King and then for Lincoln. So it shows how significant he was as an intellectual force, and it's interesting that his name is almost forgotten today. But clearly, through his writings and through his speeches and sermons, he influenced lots of people.

BLOCK: Professor Carson, thanks for helping us give Theodore Parker his due today.

Prof. CARSON: Thank you.

BLOCK: That's Professor Clayborne Carson. He is the founding director of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.

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