Monday, January 16, 2006

Martin Luther King helped define America

Martin Luther King helped define America
Capitol Hill Blue
Jan 16, 2006, 00:55

The United States, perhaps unique in the world, is a nation of documents that are peculiarly significant to our identity, because we were founded on written principles that each generation must explore and amplify.

Monday honors the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his contributions to the great canon of political and moral principles that define ourselves and our ideals. King is most often described as a "civil rights leader" and, while the categorization is indeed accurate and we were reminded of it with the recent death of Rosa Parks, it tends to pigeonhole the man.

At a crucial point in American history, the turbulent '60s, King eloquently made the case that the great promise of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution had not yet been fulfilled for all our citizens. His "I Have a Dream" and "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speeches and his "Letter From Birmingham Jail" are essential reading in any course of American history because they are American history.

The "Mountaintop" speech is especially poignant both because of its optimism and because, in it, he seemed to foretell his death:

"I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land." And, because of people like King who appear throughout our history, we will. He was murdered the next day.

King was not always so eloquent. He could be direct and this quotation is about as succinct a summation of equal protection as it gets: "It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important."

In his most famous speech, in 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he harkened back to America's founding document. "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.' "

King had great virtues and some failings, and he has been treated to the debunking that all heroes receive from posterity. The Founding Fathers were no angels, but neither does that diminish the force of their ideals and the conviction with which they held them. And King is of that number.