Today, we celebrate the holiday honoring one of the greatest Americans of the last century. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. beautifully articulated the vision of our founders and applied it right one of the great wrongs in our society.
Celebrating the American dream, he saw how various state laws mandating segregation and state policies preventing black citizens from voting not only violated the rights guaranteed these individuals by the constitution, but also damaged our nation. As much as our founders, Martin Luther King, Jr. understood what it meant to be American and sought to extend the benefits of a free society to those denied it by Jim Crow legislation.
State legislatures in southern states enacted those laws in the late nineteenth century in order to stop the progress blacks were making in the states where they had once been enslaved. And the U.S. Supreme Court was complicit in this system of segregation by refusing in such cases as Plessy v. Ferguson to strike that obviously unconstitutional legislation.
Dr. King reminded us of the principles of our constitution and the ideals of our nation. He succeeded in changing our national consciousness and helped restore our national purpose.
For that reason, for reminding us of the animating spirit of our nation, the principles our founders articulated and countless soldiers fought for in our Revolution, the Civil War and the Second World War, for extending those principles to Americans who had not previously enjoyed them, we honor Dr. King today.
Like the great Americans of the previous centuries, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and others, Dr. King recognized that the idea of freedom was central to the idea of America. His speeches were full of references to and quotations from our founding documents and patriotic hymns.
He mentioned “freedom” 21 times in his “I Have a Dream” speech (using the word, “equality” only once). His Letter from a Birmingham Jail included the word “freedom” sixteen times without once using the word, equality. While he favored equal rights, he recognized that freedom was central to the American ideal.
These two documents belong among the most important documents in American history.
In recent days, much as made (as it should have been) of Hillary Clinton’s comment that it “took a president” to realize Dr. King’s dream. Hardly. While indeed, then-President Lyndon Johnson’s signature made made the Civil Rights Act of 1964 the law of the land, that legislative victory was only part of the accomplishments of the Civil Rights’ Movement. It took someone of Dr. King’s stature to change our attitudes so that a man like Johnson who harbored racial resentments would sign the bill.
Mrs. Clinton’s comments missed the point. It shows she has little understanding of the power of a true leader to change our nation. He need not do it by enacting legislation or even by assuming a position of political power. He does it by changing minds. Dr. King did that by the power of his presence, his gift with words and his understanding of the American ideal.
Through the power of his words, he made Americans see the folly of segregation, how it blocked certain Americans from participating fully in the life of their nation while preventing others Americans who enjoyed those freedoms from recognizing the humanity of their fellows.
Dr. King showed us how segregation violated the spirit of our founding ideals and did so not by attacking this great nation, but by reminding us of our values as a people — and the promise of our founding. In his speeches and writings, he frequently referenced our patriotic hymns and the documents which defined and established the United States. He was truly a great American in the spirit of others we honor at various times during the year.
And that is why we honor this great man today.
Happy Birthday, Dr. King. And thank you for reminding us of the meaning of America. And helping correct a flaw in our nation which prevented certain Americans from realizing its promise.
– B. Daniel Blatt (GayPatriotWest@aol.com)