On March 31st, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. preached his final Sunday sermon. “We shall overcome,” he said, “because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Four days later, he was murdered. But 40 years later, his dream is more alive than he could have ever imagined. Not only might a black man be president, but at times, many forget to even be surprised by it.
My hope is that this narrative will come to inform our civil rights discourse and our discourse around social justice. The marked economic progress of black Americans, in particular black American women, reflects and represents real moral progress. And this progress was not a product of the generosity or far-sightedness of America’s elites. Rather, it was the product of a composite struggle — the familiar political struggle, of course, but also mostly unremarked-upon struggles of individuals, families, and neighborhoods. Some attribute black progress to racial preferences or to civil service reform, and that surely played a role. But I think this is mainly a story about the resilience of individuals in the face of a challenging economic environment, a badly broken criminal justice system, and a powerful legacy of exclusion and mistrust. By emphasizing the role of individuals, we can inoculate ourselves against self-serving despair and we can think clearly about the next steps we need to take — as individuals and in common.
P.S. By a million triumphs, I don’t mean to invoke Triumph.