On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous speech, “I Have a Dream,” in which he reaffirmed the principles and promises of the Declaration of Independence.
Noting that “One hundred years [after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation] the life of the Negro is still badly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination”—manacles and chains entrenched by law—King said:
In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. 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.
Here, King stood on the shoulders of the Founding Fathers and called for consistency to the principles on which they established America. “I have a dream,” he said, “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 recognized that the architects of our republic, however incompletely they instituted their ideals in their day, had paved the ideological road that could lead to full and equal liberty for every individual, and he drew on those ideals in support of the civil rights movement.
King insisted that the equal application of the country’s founding principles to all Americans was a matter of justice:
[W]e 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. And so we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and security of justice.
King, like most American leaders and intellectuals, didn’t understand the full meaning of the concepts of justice, rights, freedom, and the like, so his political prescriptions often clashed with his professed reverence for such ideals. But the overarching message King delivered fifty years ago today is that the path to a just and fully free America consists in embracing those ideals.
Although King at times advocated some highly objectionable ideas, he also spoke some of the most important truths on which civilized society depends—and did so with great eloquence. His “I Have a Dream” speech is an instance of the latter. Have a listen.
- Martin Luther King Jr. and the Fundamental Principle of America
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Image: Wikimedia Commons