As we honor Martin Luther King Jr. today, it’s worth recalling that among his great contributions was that King saw great injustice and sought to confront it within the American political tradition. This was very different than the approach taken by, among others, Malcolm X, who declared nonviolence to be the “philosophy of the fool.”
Consider what the Reverend King said during his commencement address at Lincoln University on June 6, 1961:
One of the first things we notice in this [American] dream is an amazing universalism. [The Declaration of Independence] does not say some men [are created equal], but it says all men. It does not say all white men, but it says all men, which includes black men. It does not say all Gentiles, but it says all men, which includes Jews. It does not say all Protestants, but it says all men, which includes Catholics.
And there is another thing we see in this dream that ultimately distinguishes democracy and our form of government from all of the totalitarian regimes that emerge in history. It says that each individual has certain basic rights that are neither conferred by nor derived from the state. To discover where they came from it is necessary to move back behind the dim mist of eternity, for they are God-given. Very seldom if ever in the history of the world has a sociopolitical document expressed in such profoundly eloquent and unequivocal language the dignity and worth of the human personality. The American dream reminds us that every man is heir to the legacy of worthiness.
In that sense, King was very much like Lincoln, who continually urged Americans to embrace the truths of the Declaration of Independence and spoke about the “mystic chords of memory” that return us to the American founding and the American creed. In that sense, Dr. King was not a political revolutionary; he was calling on America to live up to its founding principles. “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence,” he said in his most famous speech, “they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.” King understood, as did Lincoln, that the United States is a nation founded on a proposition. Our greatest failures have been when we have deviated from them; when we have, as Lincoln put it, “descend[ed] from the high republican faith of our ancestors.”
This is in large measure why King succeeded. He took Americans from where we were to where we needed to be, and he did so in a way that appealed to our conscience rather than our hate, in ways that uplifted the human personality rather than degraded it, that aligned our nation with moral law rather than against it. He was an imperfect and yet supremely great man, among the most important America has ever produced. Which is why we’re right to honor him.