Two days before U.S. President-elect Joe Biden delivers his inaugural address, we honor a man, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose message should inform any leader interested in national unity.
Dr. King may be the most unifying figure in American history. He had the unique ability to move the oppressed as well as the oppressor. He fought fiercely against racism and discrimination and for freedom and civil rights. But he fought equally fiercely in favor of non-violent resistance. He knew the power of violence to undermine his cause, and the power of non-violence to advance it.
But he was also impatient. “We know through painful experience that freedom is never given voluntarily by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed,” he wrote in April 1963 in a letter from a Birmingham jail. “Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct action that was ‘well timed,’ according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.”
He didn’t just fight for freedom and civil rights. He knew the value of employment in achieving human dignity. His famous “I Have a Dream” speech was billed as a rally for “jobs and freedom.”
While he fought for the rights and freedoms and equal opportunities for African-Americans, he dreamed for the whole country.
He wanted freedom to ring “from the hilltops of New Hampshire … the mighty mountains of New York … the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania … the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado … the curvaceous slopes of California … from Stone Mountain of Georgia … from every hill and molehill of Mississippi and every mountainside.”
He was a man of faith who preached confidence in America’s ability to accomplish the most difficult tasks: “With this faith,” he said, “we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”
He called on the nation “to work together, to pray together, to struggle together,” and yearned for the day “when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning ‘My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.”
Above all, King was a unifying force because he believed in America.
Yes, he was outraged that a hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation, “the colored American lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity … is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.”
But he saw the solution in America itself: “When the architects of our great 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.”
He criticized America’s failures but believed in America’s promise. His approach was to bring out the best in our nation.
“In a sense, we have come to our Nation’s Capital to cash a check,” he said in his “Dream” speech. This promissory note “was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
While he was pained that “America has given its colored people a bad check, a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds,’” he refused 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.”
Whatever your political, racial or ethnic affiliation, when you hear a black activist talk about “the great vaults of opportunity of this nation,” it’s hard not be moved.
It’s unfortunate that King’s unifying message has dissipated in recent years. Movements like the “1619 Project” seem more interested in reframing American history around slavery than in inspiring a divided nation to move forward.
King’s guiding light was 1776, not 1619. By rallying the country around our founding ideals, he brought us together. He used America’s sins not to demoralize us, but to spur us to new heights. He gave our nation hope.
Our new president can honor King’s memory by uniting us around that hope.
David Suissa is editor-in-chief and publisher of Tribe Media Corp, and the “Jewish Journal.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was first published by the Jewish Journal.