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Honoring Martin Luther King Jr. and the American Ideal

By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will,” said Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., speaking at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 3rd, 1968, the night before his assassination.

There are those who see Dr. King as a saint, others as a radical and even some still seek to delegitimize his work, because he was an alleged womanizer with Russian sympathies.

Regardless of his personal or political failings, he was a man who dedicated his life to something greater than himself.

He spoke before the Lincoln Memorial and proclaimed, “I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'”

Today, as then, there is an all-too-familiar human cry, praying the promise of our Nation’s Declaration of Independence be fulfilled. Children of many colors, like King, will yearn that, “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is not just empty rhetoric. These rights Thomas Jefferson declared were inalienable because they were given by our Creator. But have we not seen what unjust men will suppress and even steal?

King, on that night in Memphis, said God had allowed him to go up to the mountain. “And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!” King’s words were prophetic about his early death, but not about crossing over into the Promised Land, which is still yet unattainable for many.

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Our country was carved out of an idea, became a nation through the bloody struggle of a Civil War and has yet to become one nation, indivisible. In the election of Barack Obama and now that of Donald Trump, the cruel divide not just of race but also by class and culture has been exposed.

Barack Obama, during his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, said, “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America there’s the United States of America.”

I wish it were so, but it’s not. It’s an ideal, a promise of what we can be.

President-elect Donald Trump has promised to make America great again, and millions of Americans believe him and call themselves Trump Americans. Again, it is an ideal, not something any man or government can accomplish for us.

I am of the mind that the United States of America is and will continue to be the shining city on a hill that President Ronald Regan spoke of so many times. I believe, like Franklin D. Roosevelt, “That the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” I think President Kennedy was right when he said, “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

Great leaders have a vision which inspires us to be better, to aim higher and to take another step for freedom.

President George H.W. Bush said he had a problem with “the vision thing,” a problem that didn’t plague MLK, FDR, JFK, Reagan, Obama or now Trump in articulating their visions of America. King longed for the promised land where, “all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” It is an ideal which we should strive for, while realistically understanding it is a call to action and not something that will ever fully be obtained on this earth.

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During a commencement address at William Woods College in Missouri, in 1952, Reagan said, “I, in my own mind, have always thought of America as a place in the divine scheme of things that was set aside as a promised land.” Was this the same promised land King longed for? Perhaps? But it is not so much an inheritance as a place in time, a land we must work to attain.

King gave his life for a cause greater than himself, and his example and sacrifice should be honored. In his example, we should see a path where we can give ourselves a better, less divided nation.


Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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