New York Times: Citizens must bend the arc toward justice

(begin ital)This editorial appeared last week in The New York Times: (end ital)

President Barack Obama has often quoted the line made famous by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." The idea is, like Obama himself, full of both caution and hope.

In his remarkable speech Wednesday afternoon commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, Obama amended the quote for a new and warier age. The arc "may bend towards justice," he said, "but it doesn't bend on its own."

On a cloudy day filled with reminiscences, Obama's remarks were a bracing reminder of the work that remains - of "our great unfinished business," as he put it.

King's speech echoed throughout Obama's own -- he rode its stirring rhythms and repeated its most spiritual passages -- but as he has almost always done when navigating the thicket of race in America, Obama managed to enlarge the conversation to include the struggles and dreams of all Americans.

The civil rights movement was not only about race, he said, but about a "second dimension of economic opportunity," not only about justice, but about jobs. The measure of progress on this plane is "whether this country would admit all people who are willing to work hard regardless of race into the ranks of a middle-class life."

It is here, Obama said, that the goals of the civil rights movement have "fallen most short." The president has grown more comfortable discussing economic inequality openly in his second term, and not a moment too soon. In that light it was gratifying to hear him take aim at "those who benefit from an unjust status quo," who resist "minimum-wage increases or stronger labor laws or taxes on the wealthy" in the name of supposedly "sound economic principles."

It is entirely fair to hold Obama's actions up to the light of the promise in his most soaring speeches and be dissatisfied; he is the president, and his success is measured not in soothing words but in concrete results. Still, as King knew well, words inspire movements, and movements fuel the deepest and most lasting change.

Obama is aware of this, and he emphasized it again Wednesday. Speaking to the country's young people in particular, those "unconstrained by habits of fear," Obama suggested that the arc of the universe was bent by citizens -- parents and teachers and businesspeople and veterans, getting up each day and "marching" toward a fairer, more just and more equal America.

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