Charting the ‘arc of history’

February 16, 2011

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SPEAKING OF the nonviolent protesters in Egypt, President Obama said that they “bent the arc of history toward justice.’’ He was quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but the phrase was originated by the 19th-century Boston Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, an outspoken abolitionist and early advocate of women’s rights. In a speech in 1858 Parker called democracy “direct self-government over all the people, by all the people, for all the people,’’ echoed five years later in Lincoln’s Gettysburg address.

In 1872 a meeting hall dedicated to Parker’s memory was built in the South End on land donated by John Gardner, father-in-law of Isabella Stewart Gardner, founder of the renowned art museum. In the late 1960s the hall became the site of rock and blues club the Boston Tea Party, home to the J. Geils Band and presenter of musical legends such as Led Zeppelin, Muddy Waters, and The Velvet Underground. The Bostonian Society honored it by placing a historical marker on the building. The people who went to the Tea Party at night, and often participated in protest marches and sit-ins by day, were spiritual heirs of Parker and forebears of protesters such as those in Egypt.

Steve Nelson
Washington, Mass.
The writer is president and cofounder of the online Music Museum of New England, and was manager of the Boston Tea Party in 1967 and ’68.