(Originally printed in the Detroit Free Press)
If one had fictionalized the confluence of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday today with the inauguration of Barack Obama tomorrow, no one would believe it.
Yet America has a long history of remarkable auspicious days. Both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on July 4 -- 50 years to the day the Declaration of Independence was signed. The Battle of Gettysburg was won on July 3.
As we celebrate the King holiday today, we should focus on King's pivotal role in moving the country toward the dream of racial equality.
The Declaration of Independence declares as a self-evident truth the First Principle: "all men are created equal." Of course, at the time of the Declaration, that self-evident truth was honored in the breach more than in reality. Jefferson and other founders owned slaves; indentured servants were common; women were disenfranchised.
However, the principle of equality was so powerful that over the course of time it assaulted and eventually tore down the bulwarks of inequality. Even before the nation's birth, many founders railed against the hypocrisy of slavery. Abolitionists continued this tradition.
In 1863 Abraham Lincoln reaffirmed this principle in the Gettysburg Address when he said the nation was "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." Armed with this First Principle, Lincoln and the Union Army eventually liberated the slaves. Yet the promise of equality was quashed with the Tilden-Hayes presidential election of 1876 and the abandonment of Reconstruction thereafter.
Not until King, along with many other courageous leaders and foot soldiers, was America forced to fully confront racism.
King's efforts were deeply rooted in the principle of equality. Writing from a jail cell in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, he predicted African Americans "will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom."
He explained: "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."
Inspired by this understanding and the struggles of the civil rights movement, Congress passed a series of laws, and America has moved -- all too slowly -- to embrace the full ramifications of equality. Obama's inauguration will be its most vivid embodiment.
Our work, however, is not done. Our schools, museums, politicians and the media should reflect on King's achievements and pay homage to his role in making America accountable to the First Principle. To fulfill his legacy, all Americans need to be versed in the First Principle of equality and continue King's demand that it be unequivocally applied.
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