In 2009, I delivered the following speech to a gathering of students, staff and guests during Ashland High School’s commemoration of the life and work
of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In honor of Black History Month, I am republishing the address. Dr. King was one of the nation’s best interpreters of the Declaration of Independence and its significance for all Americans. This speech was published as a guest opinion by the Ashland Daily Tidings, but regrettably the newspaper considers the essay subscriber content.
I am all too aware of the challenge you offered me when you asked me to help commemorate the 80th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., this nation’s greatest civil rights leader. I am trained as an historian as well as an educator, so I know that one of the most important uses of the craft of history is to help people living in the present understand how the legacy of the past shapes the present. I hope I am up to the task.
By any objective standard Dr. King was among our greatest Americans: Author, Baptist minister, theologian, orator, the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in his time, awarded posthumously the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal, he ranks as a titanic figure among my fellow citizens, even among world leaders. During the 41 years since the end of his tragically short life, commentators with powers beyond mine have weighed and assessed the significance of Dr. King’s life, and his reputation for greatness has endured in their work. What can I possibly add in the next few minutes?
Hopefully, the historic times we live in provide a road map — or at least a place to begin. As we gather here today, my president-elect is the first American out of his 43 predecessors whom the national electorate judged not by the color of his skin, but the content of his character. In February, when we celebrate this bicentennial year of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, our nation’s greatest president, my president will serve as an example of how America is dedicated now as before to a new birth of freedom. And in 2010, when my president will undoubtedly be a keynote speaker at the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C., I will rejoice with other Americans that Dr. King’s deep-seated belief in the most basic American creed penned by the Founders — that all men are created equal — was not misplaced or betrayed. All these things are cause for celebration whether you are a Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, McCain voter or Obama voter, because they validate Dr. King’s greatest hopes for us and his nation.
The sources for his hope, his deep love of the United States and profound religious faith, have long compelled me to examine my own life and my place within this republic. Those sources are worth re-examining now, and I will do so by sharing some of his own words with you today. I cannot match the majesty of his oratory, but I can let him speak for himself.
Dr. King loved the United States, trusted in its founding ideas, and believed in the promises of just government and equal rights expressed in our founding documents. Most of us know that Dr. King’s signature 1963 speech, “I Have A Dream,” makes consistent reference to his love for this nation and belief in the promises made in the Declaration of Independence. But long before that time, he framed his appeals for liberty and freedom for all citizens within the great traditions of American civic engagement and confidence in the right to ask that rights be acknowledged and respected. King told a civil rights meeting in 1955:
“We are here also because of our love for democracy, because of our deep-seated belief that democracy transformed from thin paper to thick action is the greatest form of government on earth. And certainly, certainly, this is the glory of America, with all of its faults. This is the glory of our democracy. If we were incarcerated behind the iron curtains of a Communistic nation, we couldn’t do this. If we were dropped in the dungeon of a totalitarian regime, we couldn’t do this.”
“The substance of the dream is expressed in these sublime words, words lifted to cosmic proportions: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ And there is another thing we see in this dream that ultimately distinguishes democracy and our form of government from all the totalitarian regimes that emerge in history. It says that the individual has certain basic rights that are neither conferred nor derived from the state. As seldom if ever in the history of the world has a sociopolitical document expressed in such profoundly eloquent and unequivocal language the dignity and the worth of human personality.”
This from a man whose house was bombed, who was jailed, who was secretly wiretapped by order of Attorney General Robert Kennedy with the full knowledge of presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, whose children and wife were threatened with death at the hands of white supremacists allied with Southern police and politicians, and though he lived in the “land of liberty” faced innumerable indignities petty and perverse because of his skin color. This from a man who knew his allies were facing in American streets and American cities police brutality and race hatred so vile it was an embarrassment to the world, making many wonder out loud whether the United States had more in common with the totalitarian regimes of the Cold War than the nation conceived in liberty that Lincoln described. Yet, he refused to surrender to those who demanded that black Americans demand less, and he refused to concede that America’s dream was a lie.
In 1963 on the steps of the Washington Monument, Dr. King declared, “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 would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.” I am humbled and awed by the depth of his trust in this nation’s values despite the way many in this nation failed him.
Dr. King also was shaped and sustained by his Christian faith. Today, there are many who seem reluctant to acknowledge this facet of his greatness. Perhaps that is a reflection of a more secular age, or fear of lapsing into embarrassing sentimentality. However, we must remember that he was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and throughout his entire adult life he proudly wore the title “preacher” as one of his chief accomplishments. We might think his Christian faith was sentimental or embarrassing — he did not. He spoke frequently of how it gave him comfort and hope in the face of blistering hatred, blatant injustice and sudden death.
The day before he was assassinated, he understood what he was saying during the last speech of his life:
“What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. 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. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
His faith shaped his message of brotherly love, peace, forgiveness of racism, and reconciliation between all Americans. Ladies and gentlemen, I know my limits. Unaided, I cannot love like him. Unaided, I do not have faith like him. But because of him, I know how I can begin. I know where I am to start.
In conclusion, let me ask you to take these things that Dr. King held dear close to your hearts and use them to guide your steps as Americans. I do not presume to speak for this great man we honor today, but I know this: Every generation in America faces tough challenges. You do now. However, you do so from positions of comfort and convenience that set you apart from the vast majority of the world’s people. Enjoy these blessings that come from a nation Dr. King considered the greatest on Earth, but acknowledge your responsibilities. As a man Dr. King and I both admire once said, “Much will be required from everyone to whom much has been given. But even more will be demanded from the one to whom much has been entrusted.”
Even the poorest among you have wealth, opportunities, and education that are the envy of the world. The United States is still considered an example to the rest of the world — that is why other nations are disappointed when we fail to meet our own standards. When we fail, when our leaders fail, when you fail — and you will see and experience the failures of others and the failures of self — follow Dr. King’s example and work for change like your life depends on it, because no democracy remains alive if its people do not work to keep it.
In recent years, there are some that seem to think the best thing to do when you don’t get your way is threaten a move to Canada or drop rumors on the Internet that the president-elect isn’t really a natural-born American citizen or that he really is a kind of Muslim “Manchurian candidate.” Those are the ways of the coward and slanderer. Where would this nation be if those were the choices Dr. King made? Take his example, so aptly summarized by his biographer Peter John Ling: “In many of his sermons in small Black churches across the South. [King] would invoke the traditional African American virtue of persistence by urging the congregation to ‘keep on keeping on.’ They would respond ‘Amen,’ and so can we.”
Whatever race you are, and whether you are a Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, person of faith or no faith at all, the dream that Dr. King fought and died for needs your work to keep the dream alive and “keep on keeping on.”
Keep on keeping on — it is your responsibility — and we will keep his dream alive, rise up and live out the true meaning of our nation’s creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”