The Declaration of Independence holds the United States of America’s most fundamental promise: “…that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” A promise made to all Americans, a promise yet fulfilled.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who we honor this week for his immense and lasting contribution to the cause of civil rights and the shaping of our nation, would come back to these words – to this fundamental and eternal promise of these United States, throughout his impactful life as a true patriot and citizen.
I say, true patriot and citizen, for only a true patriot and a true citizen, in its deepest sense, would commit himself so fully to perfecting our union and preserving the American Experiment.
The Declaration of Independence and its promise was central to Dr. King’s message. In a sermon, delivered at the Ebenezer Baptist Church entitled “The American Dream,” Dr. King shared his love of the founding document: “Never before in the history of the world has a sociopolitical document expressed in such profound, eloquent, and unequivocal language the dignity and the worth of human personality.”
He often would speak to the universality of the promise – “all men are created equal.” In the same sermon, he offered: “It doesn’t say “some men,” it says “all men.” It doesn’t say “all white men,” it says “all men,” which includes black men. It does not say “all Gentiles,” it says “all men,” which includes Jews. It doesn’t say “all Protestants,” it says “all men,” which includes Catholics. It doesn’t even say “all theists and believers,” it says “all men,” which includes humanists and agnostics.”
But it was the universality of the promise which was unfulfilled…because for so many “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” were not rights afforded, nor available. Institutional racism, poverty, injustice, and bigotry blocked many, too many from their rights and thus opportunity and hope – their chance at living the American Dream.
So with great strength, conviction, and courage, he set out to hold America to its promise and by doing so he saved America. He marched, he preached, he spoke, he listened, he exhibited great compassion and humility in the face of unending hardships, despicable hatred, and troubling hostility. He challenged our nation and the people who called it home to be better, to strive for more, to push forward.
Dr. King knew, like another great American – Abraham Lincoln, a vital truth about America, that it could not endure divided, nor unequal. He knew that our nation could only exist on a forward trajectory. He knew that a stagnant America would fail or cease to be the nation our founders envisioned. He knew America’s purpose was a quest to fulfill the promise of ensuring all people were equal, free, and had the opportunity to flourish.
He made America freer, fairer, and truer to its founding ideals. He saved American and by doing so he gave all of us the opportunity to keep fighting for his vision, his dream.
And fight we must because his battle is not over. The fight for freedom, for equality, for a fair chance in the race for life is an enduring battle. A battle against the dark recesses of humanity – where hatred and bigotry reside and spread. A battle to find the better angels of our nature. A battle against the ease of the status quo and the cruel grind of time. A battle to find light and love — to see the future he fought for, the dream he envisioned of all children, all people of all backgrounds, beliefs, and races joining and singing in unison “Free at last, Free at last, Great God Almighty, We are free at last.” A battle to ensure “…that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
His legacy is our enduring will to fight on for all that America is and can be.