Commentary

Martin Luther King: Fulfilling the Constitution

By Nancy Spannaus

April 4, 2018—On this 50th anniversary of the assassination of that great American Martin Luther King, we’d do well to devote serious thought to his mission. In my view, it was nothing less than to inspire a movement to fulfill the ideals of the American System for all Americans (and mankind), as they are embodied in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the framework of economic policies which run from Franklin to Hamilton, Lincoln, and FDR. Dr. King reminds us forcefully of the moral core of our Constitutional principles, a core that can only be revived by a collective and courageous “change of heart” toward fulfilling those ideals.

 

Martin Luther King: Fulfilling the Constitution

Martin Luther King addresses the 1963 March on Washington from the Lincoln Memorial

We are usefully reminded by Dr. King’s famous statement during the April 28, 1963 March on Washington. Speaking before the Memorial to the “Great Emancipator” Abraham Lincoln:

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we have 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.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we 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. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children….

In the Footsteps of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

King, like another great African-American leader, Frederick Douglass, did not believe that the foundations of the United States were so tainted that they should be rejected, as some say today. On the contrary, Douglass shocked the abolitionist world when, in 1860 in Glasgow, Scotland, he gave a speech on the topic of “The Constitution of the United States: Is It Pro-Slavery or Anti-Slavery?” and concluded, against the view of other anti-slavery activists:

I, on the other hand, deny that the Constitution guarantees the right to hold property in man, and believe that the way to abolish slavery in America is to vote such men into power as well use their powers for the abolition of slavery.

The full speech is well worth reading.

One could say the same of the corpus of the work of Dr. King. In reviewing this subject, I came across a speech which the young Martin King gave in an oratorical contest during his junior year in high school. The oration, found here , won him first prize, and clearly represented a step on his way to the thinking that led him to his later vocation as a preacher and practitioner of non-violence and love as the means of achieving the “American Dream.”

Those who work today for the realization of that Dream stand on the shoulders of these two great men, among others. They are a wellspring of inspiration which we would best not ignore.

 

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