01 January 2000

Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.

For more than a decade, I've been spamming people with this note every year. Time marches on: this year the primary medium for that will be Facebook. If you were here this time last year, read it again anyway.

Really. Take a few minutes. I think it's important.

Most people have forgotten that at the civil rights march on Washington DC on 28 August 1963, Martin Luther King was not the featured speaker. He was not the icon of the movement that we think of today. He was a major player, yes, but there were others more famous, respected, and important at that time. The speech he gave — the one you know — changed that.

The importance of the speech is distinctively American. The United States, unique among nations, is a frankly artificial creation. France is the place in Europe where people speak French, but the US has no ethnic definition — this place is full of immigrants who decided to be Americans, and their children. Japan is an island, but there's nothing natural about the borders of the US — this place wound up a nation through a chaotic combination of war, purchase, legislative decisions, and (oh yeah) genocide. The US is an idea. Something we just made up.

This is why we have the peculiar veneration of documents that we do. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are the holiest of holies in our civic religion because they are made of words, made of ideas. Through acclamation over the years we have chosen a handful of other documents that tell us what the United States is, like Lincoln's Gettysburg address and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s I Have a Dream speech. In that speech, the power of King's rhetoric and ideas was so great that hearing it transformed our understanding of what the nation was about. I know, I know, that's a White guy thing to say: it's not like plenty of folks didn't know about American racial injustice. But on the level of shared understanding of shared destiny, King gave voice to ideas implicit in the American national promise that had too long been denied. And still are denied today.

In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. 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 would be guaranteed the inalienable 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 which has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse 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.

Go read it right now. It will only take five minutes of your time. With no exaggeration, I think it's your duty as an American. Yeah, this year we can celebrate it seeming almost unremarkable to have a Black President of the United States, but reading it you cannot help but realize that we have a lot of work left to do.

And while you're at it, take a little more time and read Letter from a Birmingham Jail. I know you did it back in school. It's worth doing again.

And if you really want extra credit, go read what he said on the last full day of his life and T. Thorn Coyle's sample of King's writing against war, or listen to an NPR piece on the “Dream” speech itself.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I would describe the obsession with documents as being related to that fact that the nation is founded on theabstract idealism of the so called "Enlightenment" which include universalism, progress based on reason ,the projection of teh Cartesian grid onto physical reality as a means of gaining oversight,thus control .But Significantly the assumption of the platonic notion that idealized form are truer than the real world. Belief in the primacy of text ,I would describe as a symptom of of idealism

Geoff B said...

one note that has particular currency... the march on Washington wasn't for 'civil rights' per se' it was "March on Washington for _Jobs_ and Freedom."

I listened to NPR replay the speech, as I read the text. Doubly Strong. Listening to him, from beginning to end, takes on a whole new dimension, beyond politics, beyond, civil rights, beyond a 'movement.' His was a conviction in _human_rights_.

The sad thing is that people see MLK as a person who was only for fighting for the rights of Blacks against the White Supremacy that was (and is) prevalent in the U.S. His was a battle for rights for all people. Also, it seems that people twist his words into 'colorblindness' instead of 'inclusion of all races and ethnicities'. "ColorBlindness" is code that I ignore everything that makes you unique, as opposed to embracing and empathizing with the culture and history, and the path a people/person have endured. Colorblindness allows the dominant class to isolate other cultures ("separate but equal", 'Chinatown'), appropriate what is convenient (jazz, 'Scotch', 'Shriners'), and passively force assimilation through economic controls. MLK's words speak of challenging your biases and drive too the everyday inclusion of all around you.