Martin Luther King’s Timeless Message

The story often told about Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is that the enthusiasm of the crowd of  250,000 people only began to build after King went off script at the urging of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.

“Tell them about the dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream!,” she urged him from the stage in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

It was then that King began to improvise.

“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’.”

“I have a dream that my 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.”

His gospel preacher delivery energized the crowed and moved a nation. The speech is now regarded by many as one of the greatest ever delivered in the country’s history.

There is no escaping the emotional impact of the latter half of the speech, but on this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, it is worth noting the less talked about call-to-action in the first half. King said they had come to Washington to cash a check that had been written by the Founding Fathers.

“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,’” King said.

America was founded on the then-revolutionary concept of equality and individual rights. The nation frequently has fallen short of the self-evident truths in the Declaration and guaranteed by the Constitution, but they have remained aspirational.

King’s ‘dream’ was an emotional plea for what the country could be, but the way forward was rooted in the original principles of what the country must be. For America to be true to itself, it has no choice but to make a course correction on racial injustice, away from prejudice, segregation and Jim Crow, and toward equality for all.

Our country is imperfect because it is the sum of human behavior, which is fickle and flawed, but if we adhere to the founding principles, we are always striving toward the creation of a “more perfect union.”

We often lose our way, but there are moments of clarity when one among us unequivocally states, both practically and passionately, what it means to be an American. Then the “fierce urgency of now,” as Dr. King said, takes hold, and the way becomes clear.

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