The Arc of History
On Wednesday, August 28, 1963, some quarter of a million people amassed on the National Mall for the “March for Jobs and Freedom.”
They heard activists, celebrities, politicians, artists, and musicians call for racial equality and fairness in American life. Mahalia Jackson and Marian Anderson both sang. So did Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and folk group Peter, Paul, and Mary. Speakers included Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and Whitney Young of the National Urban League. The youngest speechmaker was an intense and focused activist and veteran of the Freedom Rides and the march across the Pettus Bridge in Selma: 23-year old John Lewis.
And though no one knew it at the time, one of the most important moments of the struggle for justice emerged as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the speech that became known as the “I Have a Dream” speech. He was urged on by Mahalia Jackson to depart from his notes when she shouted across the stage, “Tell them about the dream, Martin.”
We mark the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington today.
But that is not the only milestone we noted this week. Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing that women in the United States would be guaranteed the vote. It has been described as one of the most important political, legal, and socially significant moments of the 20th century, for it anchored the women’s equality movement firmly in the American Constitution. It was not a perfect solution—it applied only to white women who were already recognized as citizens—but it nonetheless formalized advances in women’s rights that had been sought since before the Constitution was even written.
We marked the 100th anniversary of this landmark and milestone this week.
But there is another milestone to celebrate this week—a rare piece of good news on the public health front. On Tuesday, it was announced by the World Health Organization (WHO) that the wild poliovirus has been eradicated from Africa. There have been three years without a single case of wild polio being recorded anywhere on the continent.
This is a remarkable achievement, and one that has been an intentional goal since 1996 when Nelson Mandela helped launch the “Kick Polio Out of Africa” campaign. Among the reasons why it succeeded: some 9 BILLION vaccines, the focused efforts of hundreds of thousands of health workers and community leaders, and 2 million volunteer vaccinators. Polio is a viral disease that can cause paralysis; it mainly affects children under five. Some estimates are that as many as 1.8 million cases of polio have been avoided. For healthcare professionals, this is truly something to celebrate.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” is the way Dr. King used to talk about milestones. He was paraphrasing a statement first articulated by a 19th-century minister and abolitionist, Theodore Parker, who lived 60 years before the 19th Amendment was passed, 100 years before the March of Washington, and 150 years before polio was eradicated in Africa. Three disparate moments, all the result of passionately held beliefs, hard work, and perseverance—and all things that document how long and slow social change takes. The arc is long.
Antiracism. Gender equality. Health equity. As a mission-focused organization, these are milestones that matter to us. We are helping to bend the arc every single day—by our work, our commitment, and our lives. The milestones this week remind us of what can be done—together.