The arc of history bends towards justice

Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke of the future with hope. Despite the difficulties and dangers faced by him and others working for human equality, King kept faith—in God, people and the possibility of a better world. Ken Martens Friesen, associate professor of history and political science at Fresno Pacific University, examines how we’re doing 44 years later and sees hope as well in this Scholars Speak.

In 1968 Martin Luther King said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” King saw the world slowly moving towards a better future, championed by those willing to strive for change. Today we may wonder if his words are closer to reality than when he spoke them. Political conflicts, the threat of terrorism, global economic uncertainty and the possibility of global warming can easily push us towards despair rather than hope.

But there is another narrative, a narrative of possibility, a sense that the world indeed “bends towards justice.” In the past 100 years the number of wars between nations has dramatically declined. In January 2012 there are no inter-state wars—a virtually unheard of reality in the past century. The conflicts currently brewing, from the Congo to Afghanistan, Iraq to Myanmar, are internal ones that, while deadly, do not threaten the existence of humanity as did the threat of nuclear war a generation ago.

Even as the world’s population surpasses seven billion, the percentage of those billions living in extreme poverty is less than ever. In 2000 the United Nations set up eight Millennium Development Goals to help ensure a better world by 2015 for those living on less than $1/day. The result, now that 12 of the 15 years have passed, is significant progress towards eradicating extreme poverty and ending hunger and malnutrition. Infant mortality rates have decreased by double digits in all but a handful of the world’s countries. The reason? Not simply aid from the North to the South—those amounts have hardly changed in the past decade. Rather, economic improvements in China and India, the world’s two most populous countries, and the recent rapid growth in many African states.

As for the world's population, fertility rates throughout the world, including the most populous countries of India and China, have dropped in the past two decades. This is partly because of China’s one-child policy, and partly because China and India’s emerging middle class simply want smaller families. China’s population is set to peak around the year 2030 and then begin a slow decline, with India peaking two decades later. Latin America’s fertility rate has plummeted from 6 children per family in 1960 to a much more sustainable 2.3 children today, largely due to urbanization and a change in attitude away from large families. Though the thought of seven billion mouths to feed is daunting, the problem is not having enough food, but rather establishing more just ways to distribute it.

Linked to the slowing of the population is an improvement in the position of women around the world. In spite of many individual stories otherwise, women are better off today than 20 years ago. Today 77 percent of the world’s women are literate, up from 68 percent two decades ago. Improving women’s literacy often signals a better life for the entire family, as women’s income is more likely to be spent on family needs. Literate women also better understand, and exert, their political rights.

Democratic participation by men and women is also on the upswing. The percent of nations with liberal democracies has edged upward over the past four decades. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought with it democratic opportunities throughout the world. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s people throughout Central Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa pushed their governments towards openness and accountability. The Arab Spring shows this process continues today.

These trends may not be obvious in the daily barrage of local and global gloom and doom. It is rather when one observes over time that change can be seen. Certainly there remains much to do to make our world a better place. But it is only because millions of ordinary people were willing to risk their careers and lives that the changes just detailed took place. Just as the thousands of civil rights activists put their futures on the line in the 1950s and 1960s for change in America, so too millions put their futures on the line today to bring about King’s vision of a world that “bends towards justice.”

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