The Truth About the “Arc of the Moral Universe”

nate woods

 by Stacey S. Joseph March 7, 2020

This morning, I am deeply saddened.  There is something still lingering.  And yet again, I am reminded of the truth about the “arc of the moral universe.”

I did not know Nate Woods.  Like many of us I learned of his story via social media posts requesting a show of support via petition for a stay of execution on his behalf.  Woods was convicted in 2005 of capital murder, but there were questions about his culpability, his representation at trial, and his co-defendant, Kerry Spencer, the confessed murderer, said Woods was innocent. “Nate is absolutely innocent,” said Spencer, who also is on Alabama’s death row. “That man didn’t know I was going to shoot anybody just like I didn’t know I was going to shoot anybody that day, period.” 

The social media petition surpassed 100,000 signatures. However, the stay was denied by Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, who refused to stop the execution, stating that Woods was an “integral participant in the intentional murder of three officers.”  She also made it a point in her statement to describe Nate Woods as a “known drug dealer.”  In yet another statement Thursday evening after the Supreme Court temporarily halted the execution, Ivey said she would not step in. She said: “This is not a decision that I take lightly, but I firmly believe in the rule of law and that justice must be served.”

Three weeks ago I sat in the dine-in theater with a dear friend.  Both of us with tears in our eyes watching “Just Mercy.” The compelling story of Walter McMillian, an innocent man on death row, and Bryan Stevenson, a young attorney on what evolved into a life-long mission and legacy fighting for equality in our country’s criminal justice system. BRYAN STEVENSON FOR HARVARD LAW, MONTGOMERY AL OCT 2018
It’s been thirty-five years since Bryan Stevenson began his meaningful journey in the fight for true justice, and yet, in the name of “justice,” another innocent black man has been put to death.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  Eleven years ago President Obama helped to popularize this known Martin Luther King Jr. quote.  Obama loved this quote so much that he had it woven into the rug in the Oval Office.  He also often used the quote to temper the “audacity of hope” that he and his presidency inspired, using the quote to remind all of us who placed our unwavering confidence in his message of change, that meaningful and lasting change, does not come down to one single moment.

Like Obama, I have long since loved the the “arc of the moral universe” quote.  I have always asserted that I am a lover of words; and there is something about those words, that quote in its fullness, that has always settled deep within me.  However, my love for the quote has itself been tempered; both by the fact that far too few are able to draw the connection between Dr. King’s words and the original utterance of the quote, and the deeper, more true, and thorough meaning behind it; and by the fact that the sentiments behind the use of the quote by so many in America, often times feels to me like a micro-invalidation of what far too many black people know to be true.

I learned about the original utterance of this famous quote over twenty years ago.  I was in college and had to declare a major and had already fallen in love with Philosophy but knowing that my mother thought I should become a lawyer, I contemplated a major in Political Science.  My academic advisor asked me a defining question – “What is a basic belief that you hold about the nature of mankind?”  After a moment of reflection, I looked down and answered – “I think I believe, no, I know that I believe that people are inherently good.”  He looked at me curiously and then said – “Hmmm,  and why when you answered did you look down as if you were disappointed to say so.” I had no answer for him at the time, but it has since become clear to me why. As I walked out of his office still uncertain about my major, he called out to me – “Hey, (pause) you are a Transcendentalist.”  Shortly thereafter, I came to terms with the fact that I did not want to be a lawyer, and I declared myself a Philosophy major.  I quickly became particularly interested in Transcendentalism, a philosophical movement that developed in the late 1820s and 30s in the eastern United States.death-row  It arose as a reaction to protest against the general state of intellectualism and spirituality at the time.  A core belief of transcendentalism is in the inherent goodness of nature and people, accompanied by the belief that society and its institutions have corrupted the purity of the individual.  The philosophy emphasizes subjective intuition over objective empiricism, and that individuals are capable of generating completely original insights with little attention and deference to past masters.

During my time studying transcendentalism, I was introduced to the works and writings of a man named Theodore Parker; an American Transcendentalists, reforming minister and abolitionist.  Parker was involved with almost all of the reform movements of the time: “peace, temperance, education, the condition of women, penal legislation, prison discipline, the moral and mental destitution of the rich, the physical destitution of the poor, “though none became a dominant factor in his experience” with the exception of his antislavery views.  Parker predicted the inevitable success of the abolitionist cause in stating:

“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 cure and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience.  And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

And this quote, the “arc of the moral universe” quote, is one that Dr. King used many times, including during the march from Selma which began on March 7, 1965, exactly fifty-five years ago today, and a century after Theodore Parker’s first utterance of this famous and poignant contemplation. the scales

The truth about this quote and the reason why my love for it over the course of my life has been tempered, is because the repeated use of and reference to this quote seems to always carry with it the pervasive social hazard of romantic and magical thinking when it comes to social change.  It carries with it this reliance on something that is preordained.  I mean, after all, if in fact the arc of the moral universe ineluctably bends toward justice, there is little reason or even motivation for [any or all of ] us to do our part to work tirelessly toward justice. If it is only a matter of time or cosmic pre-determination, then to some extent, we’ve been let off the hook and we can continue, like Gov. Kay Ivey, to rest on objective empiricism and deference to past masters, and call it justice.

And this is why I am deeply saddened.  Because two centuries ago Theodore Parker uttered a prediction about the success of the abolitionist and social change;  and a century after that, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. uttered with even more hope than Parker, a prediction about the success of the Civil Rights Movement and social change; then twenty years after King, Bryan Stevenson began his journey of doing the “uncomfortable thing” in working tirelessly to change our country’s legal system; and twenty-four years afterward, America’s first African American president convinced us to have “hope” in a “change we can believe in.”  I am deeply saddened because after the execution of Nate Woods, I have to ask myself the same question that each of these men through their life’s work and legacy were essentially also posing about the “the arc of the moral universe.”:

“How long will it take to see social justice?”

I did not know Nate Woods but I have read that among other things, he was contemplative, and he enjoyed writing poetry.  Below is a poem that Nate wrote. He gave it to his sister Pamela, and asked that she share it with us – “in case” the state of Alabama murdered him.

nate w


The Man He Killed

Had they and I but met
At some old residence in Ensely
Had they put their badges
Before their criminal affiliations.
Claiming to be Law
Claiming to serve and protect
Didn’t forget to call us niggers
White men’s Mentality
Police Brutality
Bent on beating my colored life away.

And now, the kith and kin at once start preparing the funerals.
The cries and laments of the sympathizers are over and they are calm now.
The enemies are jubilant.
The kinsmen are busy dividing the estate –
and as for the dead man, he lies entrapped by his own deeds.

Such is the reality of mortal life.
The cause of the death is severe indeed,
and, by and large, we fail to realize its gravity.
Involved as we are in our daily pursuits,
we seldom hint at death and even when we do, we just bring it in as a piece of conversation.

This will not avail us.
Instead we ought to clear our hearts from the thought of all other pursuits and think of death as if it were facing us.
This realization can be brought by recalling
how you prepared the funerals of your friends and relatives
and bore them on a cot to grave then interred them in the grave.

Imagine their faces,
their high stations in life;
and then reflect how earth would have disfigured the beauty of their faces,
their bodies would have disintegrated into pieces,
how they departed leaving behind their children orphans,
their wives widows, and their relatives mourning.
Their goods, their properties, their apparels — all left behind,
and then let the realization dawn on you,
that one day you are inevitably going to meet this doom.

How those who lie dead and still today
used to raise laughter in the company of their friends!
How deeply were they engrossed in the pleasures of the world.
They lay in the dust today!
How remote the thought of “DEATH” was from their minds!
They have become its prey now.
They were intoxicated by the bubbling passions of their youth!
Today their teeth lay scattered, the foot lays broken; the worms are eating into their tongue; their bodies are infested with mite!
How frank was their laugh! Today their teeth must have fallen!

What plans had they conceived!
How they entertained thought of making provisions for years ahead!
And yet, death was hovering over their heads.
The final day of their lives had come,
but they knew not that tonight they would be no more.

Such is mine own case.
I am busy planning my life today.
Little do I know what will happen to me tomorrow.

No living being knows the time of its end.
Man makes provisions for a hundred years,
yet, knows not that he might die the next minute.




Stacey Joseph is a writer, published poet, and social change provocateur. She is also the Founder of    ImpactEDI – a social benefit company that works toward the attainment of equity through diversity, inclusion, and creating safe spaces of belonging.

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