King’s views on economics and American foreign policy were also too bound up in his persona for some conservatives to forget or forgive. More importantly, the generation of conservatives who wrongly opposed the civil rights movement either out of misguided constitutionalism or simply out of archaic racism needed to die off before King’s contribution could be better appreciated across party lines.
So what was King’s contribution? Simply this: He forced America to fulfill its own best self.
It’s popular today, particularly in certain corners of the left, to deride the hypocrisy of the Founding Fathers by pointing to the disconnect between the rhetoric of the founding and the reality on the ground. The Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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.” And yet America countenanced slavery, among other lesser but still abhorrent assaults on the ideal of equality.
But hypocrisy is only possible when it illuminates a violated ideal.
It was not until Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address that the ideal embedded in the Declaration fully became both the plot and theme of the American story. “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
That idea, always present in America’s self-conception, became the heart of the American creed. But it was not truly so until 100 years later, when King called upon Americans to live up to the best versions of themselves.
“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,” King proclaimed in the figurative shadow of the Great Emancipator at the Lincoln Memorial. “This note was the 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.”
King was not demonizing “white America,” he was appealing to its conscience, asking his fellow Americans to live up to the ideals that they claimed defined our best selves. Rhetoric, literary critic Wayne Booth said, is “the art of probing what men believe they ought to believe.”
King’s rhetoric did exactly that, which is why he belongs to every American.
Writes for Tribune Content Agency.