Some of this may be true for the United States, but almost uniquely we are a nation defined by words — documents — codifying our ideals and exhorting us to live up to them, such as the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, and John F. Kennedy’s inaugural. It is a long and inspiring list.
Now an integral part of this essential American canon are the writings of the great preacher, civil rights activist and advocate of nonviolence, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., particularly his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech and his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
King was murdered in 1968, just as he was turning his considerable moral force and oratorical skill from racial equality — there were miles left to go, but the nation had irrevocably turned the corner — to poverty and an end to the Vietnam War.
It was long in coming — we honor the 85th anniversary of his birth this weekend — but there is now a memorial to King on the capital’s National Mall, fittingly located on the Tidal Basin between monuments to two other leaders and thinkers who had an outsized role in shaping the republic — Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson.
His life was far too short — he was 39 when he died — but he left a legacy of speeches and writings that eloquently expressed America’s idealism.
King’s “I Have A Dream” speech was given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.
He gave perhaps the best and most succinct summations of a vital promise in the Constitution, still unfulfilled but far closer to being realized than when King spoke:
“I have a dream that my four little 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.”
His letter to the local clergy from the Birmingham jail, also 1963, is still one of the best, and certainly one of the most moving, descriptions of the goals and tactics of the civil rights movement and the injustices that brought it about.
King showed that there is a place for eloquence in politics; it does not have to be all sound bites and invective; it can be a soaring appeal to the best in us and our form of government.
To quote the refrain with which he concluded his “Dream” speech, “Let freedom ring!”