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What we can learn from MLK Day in 2023

Published in Blog on January 16, 2023 by Jakob Fay

Martin Luther King Jr. is widely recognized as one of the most important figures in American history. He’s also a hero to millions of Americans, myself included. His life reminds us that real change is effected first and foremost by everyday Americans who believe in our national creed. The more we study his life, work, and speeches, the more we’ve come to appreciate his contributions to American society.

Considering his continued popularity amongst both Republicans and Democrats, and his huge influence on modern political thought, it’s hardly surprising–but no less regrettable–that he has been turned into a political weapon, wielded relentlessly by rival partisans.

In recent years, the Right and Left alike have overused King’s words to justify completely opposing political views, particularly concerning issues of racial justice and Black Lives Matter, and in so doing, have lessened his most revolutionary ideas to mere platitudes. That a single, misconstrued MLK speech can be used both to vindicate and castigate a BLM riot or protest, for example, seems to suggest that either one side misunderstands MLK completely or both have missed the mark slightly.

But today, as we honor King, let’s not celebrate him for the purpose of scoring political points against opponents, but for the purpose of understanding the magnitude of his accomplishments in the context of his time and in the wider context of American history as a whole.

The real reason Reverend King is a hero to so many millions is because he advanced our society in a way that few other Americans ever have.

Preceding the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, black Americans were excluded from equal participation in society and grossly mistreated. There is no question that this pervasive discrimination is one way in which America fell far short of her noble aspirations for liberty and justice for all. Our American Creed, outlined in the Declaration of Independence, was meant for all Americans, but, in practice, it routinely fell short of actually applying to all Americans.

MLK addressed this shortcoming in his I Have A Dream speech and demanded a change:

“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.

We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

As he acknowledged in the above quotation, King made an appeal to America’s founding principles. He did not seek to rewrite them. He built on the imperfect foundation that previous generations of Americans had established. He did not seek to destroy it. His efforts were simply a fulfillment of–not a contradiction to–America’s founding.

Through protests, legislation, important speeches, and social changes stemming from the family, MLK shifted American culture away from its racist smears and atmosphere, bringing us one step closer to fully obtaining the Founder’s worthy vision for the country. By ensuring that unalienable rights–endowed upon us by our Creator and recognized in the Declaration of Independence–were applied fairly to all Americans, regardless of race, or ethnicity or political affiliation, he guided the nation in the direction of ultimately realizing the self-evident truths the Republic had been built on.

And that’s why I and countless fellow Americans, on both sides of the aisle, appreciate Martin Luther King Jr. so much. MLK day is our reminder that America never has been a perfect nation, but, thanks to luminaries like Martin Luther King, we can continue to form her into a more perfect union.

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