Obama, MLK Memorial Wrong on 'Arc' Quote

Friday, 26 Aug 2011 01:22 PM

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A quote carved into the new Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial and also found on a rug President Barack Obama had installed in the Oval Office did not originate with the civil rights leader. Instead, the quote comes from a Boston abolitionist who died in 1860, author and journalist Jamie Stiehm writes in an Op-Ed in The Washington Post.

The quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” is included on the new memorial along with other speeches and remarks by King.

Obama, MLK Memorial Wrong on 'Arc' Quote
The new Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington, D.C.
“According to David Remnick’s biography of Obama, that is the president’s ‘favorite quotation.’ Obama brought the idea back into present-day parlance and even had it sewn into the rug in the Oval Office when he redecorated last year,” Stiehm wrote. “But as I wrote on this page last September, King is not the source of that quote.

“The president should correct the record on words he cherishes, which are mistakenly and commonly cited as King’s.”

Stiehm said the quote belongs to Theodore Parker, an abolitionist and Unitarian minister, who died at age 49 just before the Civil War. Parker said in 1853: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one ... But from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”

“In King’s heyday, the civil rights leader and Southern Baptist preacher often joined Parker’s ‘arc’ quotation with his own refrains of ‘We shall overcome’ or ‘How long? Not long.’ On the gleaming curving wall of the King memorial, the ‘arc’ quotation is given simply as King’s, spoken in 1968 in the District of Columbia.

“The lines are presented with more than a dozen other lyrical passages of his oratory and the 1963 ‘Letter From a Birmingham Jail.’ An excerpt from King’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1964 is also part of the massive memorial, which faces the Jefferson Memorial across the Tidal Basin in a defiant historical dialogue.”

To be clear, “there is no question of plagiarism,” Stiehm wrote, noting that King made no secret of its source.

“King forcefully revived Parker’s ‘arc’ quotation several times in the 1960s. Years later, Obama loved the line so much that he chose it as one of five for the Oval Office rug — without reference to Parker. Let’s not allow the same omission in a place of remembrance that will be visited by countless Americans in the decades to come.”

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