A mistake has been made in the Oval Office makeover that goes beyond the beige.
President Obama's new presidential rug seemed beyond reproach, with quotations
from Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, John F.
Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. woven along its curved edge.
"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
According media reports, this quote keeping Obama company on his
wheat-colored carpet is from King.
Except it's not a King quote. The words belong to a long-gone Bostonian
champion of social progress. His roots in the republic ran so deep that
his grandfather commanded the Minutemen at the Battle of Lexington.
For the record, Theodore Parker is your man, President Obama. Unless
you're fascinated by antebellum American reformers, you may not know of
the lyrically gifted Parker, an abolitionist, Unitarian minister and
Transcendentalist thinker who foresaw the end of slavery, though he did
not live to see emancipation. He died at age 49 in 1860, on the eve of
the Civil War.
A century later, during the civil rights movement, King, an admirer of
Parker, quoted the Bostonian's lofty prophecy during marches and
speeches. Often he'd ask in a refrain, "How long? Not long." He would
finish in a flourish: "Not long, because the arc of the moral universe
is long, but it bends toward justice."
King made no secret of the author of this idea. As a Baptist preacher on
the front lines of racial justice, he regarded Parker, a religious
leader, as a kindred spirit.
Yet somehow a mistake was made and magnified in our culture to the point
that a New England antebellum abolitionist's words have been enshrined
in the Oval Office while attributed to a major 20th-century figure. That
is a shame, because the slain civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize
laureate was so eloquent in his own right. Obama, who is known for his
rhetorical skills, is likely to feel the slight to King -- and Parker.
My investigation into this error led me to David Remnick's biography of
Obama, "The Bridge," published this year. Early in the narrative,
Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, presents this as "Barack Obama's
favorite quotation." It appears that neither Remnick nor Obama has
traced the language to its true source.
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
The president is at minimum well-served by Parker's presence in the
room. Parker embodied the early 19th-century reformer's passionate zeal
for taking on several social causes at once. Many of these reformers
were Unitarians or Quakers; some were Transcendentalists. Most
courageously, as early as the 1830s, they opposed the laws on slavery
and eventually harbored fugitives in the Underground Railroad network of
safe houses. Without 30 years of a movement agitating and petitioning
for slave emancipation, Lincoln could not have ended slavery with the
stroke of a pen in the midst of war. Parker was in the vanguard that
laid the social and intellectual groundwork.
The familiar quote from Lincoln woven into Obama's rug is "government of
the people, by the people and for the people," the well-known utterance
from the close of his Gettysburg Address in 1863.
Funny that in 1850, Parker wrote, "A democracy -- that is a government
of all the people, by all the people, for all the people."
Theodore Parker, Oval Office wordmeister for the ages.
Jamie Stiehm, a journalist, is writing a book on the life of Lucretia
Mott, a 19th-century abolitionist and women's rights leader.