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January 17, 2005
In memory of Dr. Martin Luther King
Filed in: Current Affairs, Politics

Ever been working on a post and have to do something else before you finally get to it?

I wrote the following to the United States Senate in the middle of the Clinton impeachment proceedings. It is, for me, my standard celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King and the day that we commemorate his great work:

1/18/99

Only Half the Dream?

I celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day today, along with the rest of the country. In remembrance I reviewed Dr. King's "I Have A Dream" speech and since I am just old enough to remember it, I could hear a cranial recording of his impassioned timbre even though I was reading the speech on a web page without the benefit of RealAudio.

I was struck by a couple of things that I think are salient to the crisis of conscience that we, all of us who have an American heart beating in our breast, are facing.

One, of a general nature, I am struck by the current call to 'majoritarianism' as an issue of importance in our current crisis and how that is at variance to that last great national appeal to the rule of law that the 'minority' representative Dr. King made.

"The polls show ...", "A majority of Americans believe ...", these things are being spun now as if somehow Americans have a legacy of confronting crises of principle from the majority view and disavows the process of American democracy. I don't recall there being any 'spin' in August of 1963, but we should be ashamed today if the majority view had been implemented as a response to the invocation of our Declaration and our Constitution that was made by Dr. King.

If our current view has taken so revisionist a cast - we should remember that there was a reason that Dr. King stood in the symbolic shadow of Lincoln, there was a reason for him to invoke the architects of our great republic, there was a reason to claim heir to America's promissory note - America, the majority of this country, had defaulted in its obligations to its citizens of Dr. King's race.

There was also a reason to believe that the "bank of justice" was solvent, there was a reason for Dr. King to urgently call for the whirlwind of dissatisfied necessity, there was a reason for him to have a dream, "... a dream deeply rooted in the American dream." In the face of the majority, Dr. King had the principles of this country and its promise of justice under the rule of law towering behind him in all of its hallowed force, affirming his plea for freedom.

From just after the season of Dred Scott to the Civil Rights movement, the American ship has been righted, its course has been corrected by minority calls to its founding principles. Calls to abolish slavery, to face down bloodthirsty beasts on other continents, and to grant the full rights of citizenship to all its citizens began as minority efforts that stood in the face of status quo, isolationist, and trivializing majorities. Each of these efforts was hallowed by the blood of this country's citizens who sprinkled a freshening on those first documents so that the fully constructed words have burned ever brighter even though the parchment fades.

Since then I fear we have sailed into uncharted waters again.

Secondly, of a specific nature, I realized today in recalling Dr. King's speech that August 1963 is an ANCIENT history. It is much farther removed from our day, than Dr. King's day was from Lincoln's. Our accelerating change and social experiment has led us so far from 1963 that we can hardly comprehend the meaning of Dr. King's magnificent utterance. In our day his words would not be "PC". In our day he might be accused of threatening the separation of Church and State (though called to no fault by the founders whose voices are farther and fainter still). 

In the midst of his field of dreams Dr. King said in that slow and powerful cadence: "I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." He spoke with the moral certitude of one who knows the ways of things. His voice inflected on the word "judged". He knew that society and law judged, he acknowledged that judgment was by necessity of a piece of cloth in our republic. He used the word in its full judicial force, fully constructed by all the meaning that obtained to it in an oppressed people and in the person of a modern Moses.

He dreamed of a nation that would not remove judgment from his children - he asked that judgment would be redirected - from the outward appearance of a human being, to his assumed egalitarian judgment provided by the American legacy: "by the content of their character."

Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed that his children would be judged "by the content of their character." We stand today in the long and sacred shadow of Martin Luther King, Jr. In some respects we are all his children. The skin that covers my body is white, but I am Dr. King's child. I am his child because I "have come to realize that [my] destiny is tied up with [his legacy's] destiny. [I] have come to realize that [my] freedom is inextricably bound to [his legacy's] freedom." We all, all Americans, are his heirs in spirit and in truth. We are heirs to his dreams of freedom and of justice.

Alas, and to our shame, we have carried forward only half of this dream of Dr. King's. We have inculcated a credo that states that we "shall not judge a human being on the basis of race, creed, sex, or national origin but shall judge on ... judge on what? We shall judge on NOTHING." That we have obtained to this in our society is evinced by the fact that we are actually having a national debate that trivializes the content of character.

We have therefore done violence to the dream of Dr. King and have stripped it of its very essence. Instead of his high-minded call we cast his children from discrimination to nihilism. If the content of character is trivial, then the blood of Martin Luther King, Jr. was shed in vain and is on our hands. If only half of his dream is to be realized then we are all descended into nightmare. If the singular representative of American 'everyman' cannot be adjudicated on the basis of the content of his character then we are utterly lost at sea. If the person in whom the law is reposed has assaulted the promise of justice then the hallowed blood of our patriots is leeched from our legacy and we are without rudder.

We require a change in course, dear Senators. I implore you to stand in the breech.



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