Originally published in the Detroit News:
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
How King helped America achieve dream of equality
As is apt to happen during the presidential primary season, politicians have wrapped themselves in the flag and America's icons. Quite appropriately, many candidates are harkening to the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In fact, a small primary eruption occurred when the leading Democrat candidates, U.S. Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, sparred over his contributions to the American Dream.
As we approach the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday on Monday (his birthday was Tuesday), we should take the opportunity to put aside partisanship and invective. Instead, we should focus on King's pivotal role in moving the country toward realizing the yet unfulfilled dream of racial equality.
The Declaration of Independence so eloquently penned by Thomas Jefferson and the Second Continental Congress declares as a self-evident truth the First Principle that "all men are created." Of course, at the time of the Declaration, that self-evident truth was honored in the breach as much as in reality. Jefferson and many other Founding Fathers owned slaves; indentured servants were common; and women were disenfranchised.
However, the principle of equality was so powerful that over time it assaulted and eventually tore down the bulwarks of inequality. Even before the nation was born, many Founding Fathers railed against the hypocrisy of slavery in light of the self-evident truth that all men were created equal by the Creator. Abolitionists continued this tradition through the antebellum period.
In 1863, Abraham Lincoln reaffirmed this principle in the Gettysburg Address when he explained that the nation was "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." Armed with this, Lincoln and the Union Army eventually liberated the slaves. Likewise, the Radical Republican Congress enacted Reconstruction to affirm the principle of equality.
Yet, the promise of racial equality was quashed with the infamous Tilden-Hayes presidential election of 1876 and the abandonment of Reconstruction thereafter. Not until Martin Luther King Jr., along with many other courageous leaders and foot soldiers, was America forced to more fully confront the legacy of racism.
King's efforts were deeply rooted in equality. Writing from a jail cell in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, he predicted that African-Americans "will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom." He explained that "One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy that were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence."
Inspired by this understanding and the struggles of the civil rights movement, Congress passed a series of civil rights laws; and America has moved -- all too slowly -- to embrace the full ramifications of equality.
As we approach the holiday on Monday, our schools, museums, politicians and the media should reflect on King's achievements during this critical period and pay homage to his indispensable role in making America accountable to equality.
To fulfill his legacy, all of America's citizens and students need to be well versed about equality and continue King's demand that we unequivocally apply it.
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