I was born on a Thursday. Thursday’s child has far to go, according to the nursery rhyme. Originally, that meant the child would go far in life. In modern times, the phrase has caused people to think the child has suffered a setback right from the start. I have felt evidence to support both interpretations, yet I remain optimistic. I have been fortunate and privileged for reasons beyond my control.
The hospital in Atlanta where I was born lies four blocks from a small brick building known as Ebenezer Baptist Church. Its minister was not at the church on the day I was born. He was in Alabama, leading the third—and ultimately successful—attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery. The minister led a group of marchers to protest the abuse of civil rights of African Americans. When he and his followers reached the steps of the capitol building in Montgomery, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a speech that has taken on the title, How Long, Not Long. It’s the speech in which King said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I have seen that arc curving through my life, searching for the point at which it will intersect the ground where we walk.
We walk on ancient ground. Roads near my birthplace bore Cherokee names because they followed the routes of Native American trails. The house I lived in as a child sat on a battlefield where we found Civil War projectiles in our garden. Our predecessors left marks on the land. We incorporate those marks into the world we build, or they fade altogether and are forgotten. What will become of the marks we make?
Many cities in the southeastern U.S. have a road named for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Cities honor the man so we don’t forget his name. Yet other things we do dishonor what Dr. King taught. The privileges that one race enjoys over another, based on implicit bias and written into laws, municipal zoning ordinances, school funding decisions, and corporate policies have been slowly undone, but they are not gone. Their effects persist, as does the bias that produced them. It’s as if we’ve decided in the past half century that some of Dr. King’s teachings were wrong and we’ve politely ignored them. His metaphor about morality bending toward justice, for example. Our failure to incorporate morality into justice in matters of race suggests that we’ve discovered a different natural law: the arc of the moral universe only bends toward justice like an asymptote, approaching but never touching it. Dominant culture has driven the meaning out of Dr. King’s words even though we still pay lip service to them. This is what we do with Native American names for roads and rivers, honoring a people who were driven from their own lands so our predecessors could secure the privilege of land ownership for themselves. And us. We honor to make ourselves feel better about dishonoring.
Roads today bear new names, new markings. A road in Washington, DC now bears bold yellow letters, taking up all of the lanes and stretching blocks. The letters spell out BLACK LIVES MATTER. That’s easy to write or say; our challenge is to honor the statement. Our challenge is to honor Dr. King by doing more than naming roads for him or erecting a monument. Our challenge is to recognize the ground on which we stand, and the present moment of our individual and collective standing, as the moment when we finally bend the moral universe sufficiently to intersect justice. Dr. King asked how long it would take to realize the moment. He concluded, “Not long.” It has probably taken longer than he expected, and certainly longer than he hoped.
I share a date in history with the March from Selma to Montgomery. The speech after the march was a watershed moment in the history of the Civil Rights movement, and the birth of the idea that morality was still only approaching justice. Thursday, March 25, 1965. Thursday’s child has far to go. Now would be a good time for the moment Dr. King envisioned to arrive. Let’s make sure it does.