On Aug. 28, 1963, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shared his vision of what it would mean for America to be a great nation. His dream, he declared, was “deeply rooted in the American dream. 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.’”
The civil rights leader knew perfectly well how far the nation was from realizing that vision. His audience of 250,000 had marched on Washington to demand freedom and justice. “Some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality.”
The severity of the problems meant that “It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.” As King saw it, the crisis threatening America was rooted in the nation’s failure to live up to its founding ideals. Still, while acknowledging the danger, King offered a message of hope that inspired a generation.
He dreamed of a time when “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” A future where his “four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” A place where “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
“If America is to be a great nation,” King emphasized, “this must be true.”
Unfortunately, some civil rights activists today would be uncomfortable with or offended by King’s celebration of America’s founding ideals. The New York Times “1619 Project,” for example, call those ideals “false when they were written.” In their effort to “reframe” history, the Times suggests instead that protection of slavery was a primary reason the colonies sought independence from Britain.
King, however, understood that America’s history was far richer and more nuanced than The New York Times suggests.
It’s true, of course, that the first enslaved people were brought to Jamestown in the summer of 1619. But, just a few weeks earlier, Jamestown was also home to the first representative government in the colonies. Thus, two national narratives were born. These narratives — one positive and one negative — have competed to define America ever since. Both have played a major role in shaping our nation and neither can be adequately understood without the other.
That conflict was bound up in the person of Thomas Jefferson. How could a slaveholder write the Declaration of Independence? Such incongruence of thought and action puzzled Abraham Lincoln less than a century removed from the era and society that formed Jefferson and the other founders. But President Lincoln cherished the ideal of a “nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Lincoln recognized that while Jefferson wrote our founding document, he was merely giving voice to the deeply held attitudes of the American people.
It was a classic case of culture leading and politicians lagging behind. According to Utah Professor of English Gillian Brown, “The Revolution began quietly in homes and schoolrooms across the colonies in the reading lessons women gave to children.” Brown added, “Long before Revolutionary sermons and speeches, the ideal of self-determination resided intimately in the colonial imagination.”
The distinct American culture came about because colonial Americans had more pragmatic experience with freedom and self-governance “than any part of mankind in the eighteenth century.” Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon Wood put it like this: “While the speculative philosophers of Europe were laboriously searching their minds in an effort to decide the first principles of liberty, the Americans had come to experience vividly that liberty in their everyday lives.”
The dream shared by Martin Luther King grew out of that deep cultural commitment to our nation’s founding ideals. And those ideals have long been recognized as a powerful force for creating a better world.
In Federalist 11, Alexander Hamilton wrote that Europe had used “force and fraud” to oppress America, Africa and Asia. The “arrogant” Europeans considered “the rest of mankind as created for their benefit.” In Hamilton’s view, it was up to the United States to “vindicate the honor of the human race” and teach the Europeans a lesson.
In 1963, King reminded us that we first had to learn that lesson for ourselves. There’s still a long way to go before we realize King’s dream, but 21st century Americans are fortunate that our founding ideals can guide us.
Scott Rasmussen is an American political analyst and digital media entrepreneur.