When come to a crescendo, yet this climax

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When looking back over the previous eras of human
existence, it seems almost obvious that time has led to immense moral progress.

Every century seems more morally progressive than the last, and we often look
back upon past customs as inhumane or unjust, although at the time they would
have been the societal norm.  However,
one must question whether ‘time’ itself is the reason for this improvement, or
whether there are other factors at work, with time merely flowing beside them.

For the sake of this essay, I will be exploring the question through the lens
of the case study of the American Civil Rights Movement from the 1940s to the
1970s, a situation where black Americans fought for their constitutional rights
in what was described as the ‘moral vacuum’ of America.1 Although a shorter period
of time, and there definitely being a struggle for black civil rights prior to
this, it provides us with a succinct area of a tireless movement with many
differing ideas within it, allowing us to apply arguments to an actual
situation. Contemporary sources and ideas from leaders such as Martin Luther
King K Jnr., Malcolm X and their surrounding movements, alongside thinkers such
as James Baldwin will be central to this analysis.  In this essay, I am defining ‘moral progress’
in regard to social and cultural attitudes rather than just legislation on its
own. I will be looking into the de facto environment as opposed to the de jure,
and focus on the views of the people becoming more liberal, inclusive and
tolerant to push forward moral progress. Throughout this piece, I will argue
that we cannot trust that time alone can push forward moral progress, although
it can sometimes be a factor. Time is only effective in how it lets a moral
tension bubble and come to a crescendo, yet this climax could come in a matter
of days or any number of years, meaning for it to be an unreliable variant in
moral progress, as it is dependent on many other factors. Individuals and
groups within society and their actions are the driving force for change,
combined with a certain timing and political or social climate in the society
they campaign within. Without these people as catalysts for change, the moral
situation could remain stagnant for decades until another likeminded person
defies the norm and acts, and it is not certain that this may ever occur. As
King states, ‘we must come to see that human progress never rolls on the wheels
of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of
men’.2  Other key matters are that of timing, the
urgency of the issue, the levels of ignorance and tension in a society, the
current social and political climate and the influence of media. Finally, I
will briefly assess how some regions of contemporary morality may be an issue
for the time argument, as in some areas, there seems to have been a moral
regression. Overall, I will argue that time runs seamlessly alongside human
moral progress yet does not define it, with the main drivers being individual
people, the timing at which they choose to act, a mixture of other varying
factors and lastly look into how it is possible for morality to revert to a
worse state even as time progresses.

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Firstly, one must look into the argument defending
‘time’ and its impact upon moral progress. The early philosophy of Martin
Luther King in the civil rights movement reflects this.3 King emphasised ideas of
gradualism, focusing on long-term success relying on negotiation, non-violent
protest and eventual legislation passing. He put forward four basic steps:
collection on facts of injustice, negotiation, self-purification and finally,
direct action. 45 Although it does lead to
result, such as the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955-1956, it is a
lengthy process, requiring many black Americans to face intimidating violence,
massive humiliation and the large possibility of jail time. King asked his
followers ‘are you able to accept blows without retaliating?’, proving just how
much trust an individual would have to instil in the extensive process.6  Working alongside the white government, King called
for reform over revolution, the distribution of ideas and had faith that one
day, laws would be enforced.7 On the other side of the
debate, Malcolm X, a key leader in the opposing Black Nationalist movement,
deemed the movement as ‘passive’, claiming that the black people cannot sit-in
and ‘wait another 100 years for the white man to make up his mind.’8 It is true that King did
eventually make moral progress through his early philosophy, but this would not
have happened with the success it did without other groups such as the Black
Panthers providing a tangible threat of violence. Without the growing white
fear of black nationalism, combined with other factors, such as the creation of
martyrs as key black leaders were assassinated, would the white man have ever
actually made up his mind? It is impossible to place all moral progress on one
factor, especially a factor as varying and manipulable as time. Other key
thinkers of the period, such as James Baldwin agreed that the non-violent
branch of the civil rights movement cannot expect a sudden change in the white
man’s consciousness over time but must push for this themselves through more
action.9 Baldwin goes as far to
rename the movement ‘the latest slave rebellion’, thereby emphasising the fact
that little moral progress has happened since the point of abolition.10 Black people are still
viewed as second class citizens and still don’t have full constitutional
rights, but finally, the right people have come forward to lead this rebellion.

A second key argument for the prevalence of time in pushing forward moral
progress is that time leads to tension. Although this is a true statement, as
the oppressed become angrier at their quality of life and those in power become
for aware of this growing anger, the amount of time it takes for this tension
to climax is completely random. Once more, it relies on an individual or group
to even cause the tension to begin to mount, by highlighting certain ideas to
both those in power and the oppressed. Next, it could take a day or up to a
decade for this tension to rise and this is also implicated by an individual or
group, or even a certain event. It is clear that some period of time is needed
for moral progress, but as time is constantly flowing, it can be deemed to be a
variable in any type of change, both positive and negative. Through the
analysis, rebuttal and major pitfalls in Martin Luther King’s early philosophy
combined with the ever-flowing and extremely variable nature of time, it
becomes clear that time alone is not something that we can trust in to advance
moral progress.


The argument against time can be seen clearly
through the later philosophy of Martin Luther King. As violence against black
people in America heightens with rioting in the North (New York, Philadelphia,
Chicago and Jersey City,1964), continued vast cruelty in the South (Birmingham,
1963) combined with the lynching, brutalities and discriminations of before,
King realises the urgency of the matter. Change is required immediately,
something that waiting over long period of time is unable to bring about. King
maintains his stress on non-violence, yet becomes more forceful in his
rhetoric, as seen in both his Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963) and his famous
‘I have a dream’ speech (1963). Time has been a small factor in the passing of
legislation, but although de jure change has been implemented, de facto change
is yet to happen. Without individuals and groups working to change social
attitudes and mobilising public thought with immediate effect, time alone does
not have a function in this. Moral progress is not a matter of time, but a
matter of tension. In the case of the civil rights movement, this tension has
not been brought around by time itself, but by mass violence in places such as
Birmingham, which directly causes King to write this moving letter, which
directly attacks time. King states ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied’
and speaks of ‘the myth of time’.11  This ‘legitimate and unavoidable impatience’
that King discusses here proves how, if anything, time has worsened the
situation for black Americans as their anger bubbles and rises into rage, a
rage that causes for King to be pushed to change his whole philosophy and
become more urging in his approach to de facto change. 12 Gene Sharp’s theory of
social power, used in the philosophy of King, becomes more prominent here as
King’s approach, although still non-violent, becomes more vigorous. Sharp
outlines that society can only function if the public cooperate with law and
argues how if one significant group withholds its willingness, it could
effectively take away power from those in charge. 13 This concept reiterates
the need for leaders to rally the angry minority to rebel against the majority,
proving once more that this is not a matter of time, but an innately human
matter that requires the force of people to implement the change they want to


            There are many other
factors that push forward moral progress alongside the key work of individuals
and groups operating for change in the period. In some cases, specifically the
case for civil rights in America, moral progress is not a matter of time, but
instead a matter of timing. At the time of the movement, the media was becoming
a central element to the dissemination of information and also a new emphasis
was put on televised news reporting. This crucial timing of the campaign
allowed for Martin Luther King and his contemporaries to finally be able to
show the world the mass abuses going on in America against black people, open
the eyes of the ignorant and create a vital shock factor as events such as
violence in Birmingham occurred. This also brought a massive pressure onto the
government to act, as the global media was appalled. Alongside this, due to
other issues in America, such as mass government resentment from students due
to the war in Vietnam, the younger generation, and indeed some of the older
generation, were more likely to join forces with the civil rights movement in
another act against government policy whilst also creating an atmosphere that
could shatter at any point. Another major factor that allowed for this specific
generation of activists succeed was the ‘abysmal ignorance’ of white America.14 Prior to the struggle for
civil rights in the 1940s onwards, there had been people fighting for the cause
from all angles, such as Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey. However, these
activists did not achieve the same mass success or following as King and his
contemporaries. Due to the newly developed media, Martin Luther King was able
to address issues previously unknown to the majority of middle class white
America and provide a personal edge and likeable characters to highlight
specific areas of hardship for black Americans. Meanwhile, other militant
groups such as the Panthers heightened fear amongst the white community and
provided a threat and a new dimension to the campaign for rights. The urgency
of the struggle was another significant component in the moral progress of the
period, as people were imprisoned, injured or even killed on a daily basis
around America for purely racial reasons. James Baldwin echoes this sentiment
as he argued that no amount of petitioning and marching ‘would or could reach
the core of the matter, it would change nobody’s fate’, proving how urgent the
situation was becoming and how final and decisive action was needed that would
create lasting effects.15 Moral progress can no
longer wait- it must happen immediately. King directly speaks of ‘the fierce
urgency of now’, claiming that ‘this is no time to engage in the luxury of
cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism’.16 Through these words, we
can see that King has taken the completely opposing idea to his early
philosophy, as he too comes to the realisation that time is not an important
factor, yet instead the surrounding conditions and actions of people is what
truly drives moral progress. Ideas of civil rights for both black Americans and
other marginalised groups have always existed, but it takes a certain political
and social climate with all the right factors at play to allow their voices to
be heard and for them to be given the correct platform to uncover underlying,
unjust issues. Factors such as urgency, current politics, tension, the right
generation and media exposure all push towards the final moral progress seen in
the civil rights movement.


The final argument against time leading to moral
progress is the questionable nature of the progression itself. Even in our
modern world, decades on from the struggle for civil rights, there is still
rife racism in America, a country we consider to be fully developed, in both
the social and moral sense. Although morality has definitely progressed since
the 1970s, people debate today, with the latest inauguration of President
Donald Trump, how views are changing to possibly become less liberal or
tolerant in America today.  Alongside
this, neo-Nazism and other extremist movements that promote white superiority and
the marginalisation of minority groups are on the rise.17 It is debatable as to
whether this seeming regression in morality is a reaction to the liberalism and
improvement of recent years, or an actual threat to moral progress. Regardless
of this discussion, this idea of moral regression shows how time cannot be
trusted to lead to moral progress, as sometimes it can do the opposite. In
addition, there are still many minority groups who are still marginalised or
even yet to be recognised on a global stage. How long will their wait for
justice be and how much humiliation will they have to face before change
arrives?  For the reason described
previously, people cannot wait in confidence that time will solve the injustice
they’re facing and will instead choose to campaign and act until they can reach
their goal. As argued by King, ‘oppressed people cannot remain oppressed
forever. The urge for freedom will eventually come.’18


            In conclusion, it is
clear that time alone cannot be trusted to lead to moral progress. Moral
progress is a completely human phenomenon, that is led by individuals and
groups mainly, but requires a certain timing that balances tensions, urgency,
political climate and social attitudes together to create the perfect
atmosphere for change. Time can be useful in how it allows for tension to grow,
but is a factor so variable and unreliable that it can barely be referenced as
a key feature in moral progress. It is the actions of people, that run
alongside time, that cause the real change, although it can seem on the
surface, when looking from one decade to the next, that time holds the major
role in progression. The changes seen and discussed in the civil rights movement
have been purely down to leaders such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X,
combined with mounting tensions and discontentment with the government. Even
King himself adjusts his theories to prove the urgency of the present and focus
on immediate, de facto action.  Over
time, it is possible to even see regressions in morality, as arguably seen in
the America of today, working against the idea that time itself can improve the
human condition. King summarises this argument in the line, ‘it is the strangely
irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will
inevitably cure all ills’.19Once more, King refers
back to the argument that individuals and groups are the main catalysts for
moral progress, claiming that without these key groups ‘time itself becomes an
ally of the forces of social stagnation’.20 Overall, moral progress
was, and continues to be, pushed forward by people who stand against the social
norm and highlight key issues, and if the social and political climate is tense
and teetering due to an array of factors, a change in attitudes, and with that
moral progress, will arise.

1 James Baldwin from a debate
between Malcolm X and James Baldwin, September 5th, 1963, http://www.openculture.com/2015/08/james-baldwin-debates-malcolm-x-1963-and-william-f-buckley.html , accessed on 29.12.17 

2 Martin
Luther King, A Letter from Birmingham
Jail, April 16th, 1963 (Research and Education Institute)  

3 Early MLK Philosophy

4 Gradualism: A policy of gradual
reform rather than sudden change or revolution- Oxford Online Dictionary, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/gradualism

5 Martin Luther King, A Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16th,
1963 (Research and Education Institute)

6 Martin Luther King, A Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16th,
1963 (Research and Education Institute)

7 More MLK

8 Malcolm X from a debate between
Malcolm X and James Baldwin, September 5th, 1963, http://www.openculture.com/2015/08/james-baldwin-debates-malcolm-x-1963-and-william-f-buckley.html , accessed on 29.12.17 

9 James Baldwin from a debate
between Malcolm X and James Baldwin, September 5th, 1963 (ibid.)

10 James Baldwin from his speech to
… on…

11 Martin Luther King Jnr, A Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16th,
1963 (Research and Education Institute)

12 Martin
Luther King, A Letter from Birmingham
Jail, April 16th, 1963 (Research and Education Institute)

13 Gene Sharp

14 James Baldwin from a debate
between Malcolm X and James Baldwin, September 5th, 1963, http://www.openculture.com/2015/08/james-baldwin-debates-malcolm-x-1963-and-william-f-buckley.html , accessed on 28.12.17

15 James Baldwin
from Eddie S. Glaude, Jnr’s James Baldwin
and the Ugly Moral Problem in America’s Heart, 27.08.17 http://time.com/4917486/james-baldwin-america-racism/ , accessed on 29.12.17

16 Martin Luther King, ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, August 28th,

17 White superiority

18 Martin Luther King, A Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16th,
1963 (Research and Education Institute)

19 Martin Luther King, A Letter from Birmingham Jail, !6th
April 1963 (Research and Education Institute)

20 Martin
Luther King, A Letter from Birmingham

Categories: Case Study


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