I become weary of talk of "the American dream," "freedom," and similar patriotic slogans because too often they are cover for something in which we have no reason to take pride. However, at least once a year, on Martin Luther King Day, I abandon cynicism and celebrate those words; to him they meant something.
Eugene Robinson, writing in The Washington Post, noted the aptness of the placement of the King statue, between the Jefferson Memorial, "which honors the man whose stirring words now apply to all Americans, not just a few," and Lincoln Memorial, "a tribute to a leader who shepherded the nation through days much darker than these," and started the process by which the principles of the Declaration became applicable to all. In his famous 1963 speech, King put it this way:
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
Dr. King did not pretend that the battle for a share of Jefferson’s vision was over:
. . . One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
. . . When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. . . .
If any people had right to reject Americanism, to reject the notion of a shared heritage, it was those whose ancestors had been kidnaped, sold and enslaved by men mouthing the virtues of America, but King didn’t do that. He began his speech by referring to "the history of our nation." He didn’t make his indictment in terms of the irrelevance of American principles, or of their falsity, but as a demand that they be applied. He recognized and celebrated our founding principles and merely argued that we should live up to them:
I say to you today, my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."
Would that every reference to our heritage and principles could be so valid.
There is another theme to King’s speech: faith. I have been critical of politicians who invoke religion, not least because doing so implies — or shouts — that a some partisan or interested program is God’s will. However, I’ve clung to an ill-defined exception to be applied where the appeal is not to doctrine but to moral principle. King’s address is an example. I would like to be able to add another qualification, that the issue be above politics, but that isn’t possible. Any serious social issue is political in the broad sense, and the campaign for civil rights for black people certainly had its political aspect. Whether or not my rationale makes any sense, I always am moved by these two passages, the second of which closed his speech:
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
. . . From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"