MLK’s Teaching Requires America’s Founding

Americans commemorate days of birth and days of death of notable figures as a reminder of the contributions that they made to the nation’s history and, perhaps, of how we ought to think about our history and understand our place in it. This week we recall the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His murder denied the man the opportunity to see the nation respond to his call for ending the terrible discrimination and racism that plagued parts of American society in his time. His courageous words still ring out as a reminder that all must be ever vigilant in challenging behavior that conflicts with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

Dr. King’s speeches and writings reminded all of truths that had been forgotten or had not fully been embraced. He sought to instruct his fellow citizens in the means to achieve the ends of just government under law for all. He gave hope and inspiration to those who had been unreasonably deprived of human dignity through legislation in conflict with our founding documents.

His speeches were profound, but also colorful and accessible in that the allusions he employed were to activities every American could understand.  In his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, for example, he said:

In a sense we’ve 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, 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.”

The closing words of this same speech are immortalized in the minds of many and include what is perhaps his most moving and most universally appealing lines, “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.”

Earlier in 1963, Dr. King had spent time in the Birmingham Jail where he penned a uniquely thoughtful and now famous letter. He was responding to a group of clergymen who expressed many concerns including that the demonstrations King and others were leading might be “unwise and untimely.” Dr. King explained that he was in Birmingham because “injustice is here.” The letter numbers many pages. He remarks at the end that he had never written one so lengthy, but that the jail cell is conducive to “write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers.”

The letter is a tour de force, going well beyond responding to those clergymen, laying the religious and philosophical foundations for the civil rights movement that had spread throughout the South. Beginning with an explanation of the non-violent campaign, King displayed his deep learning by invoking Socrates, Jesus Christ, Catholic theologians St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, Reinhold Niebuhr, the religious figures of Amos, Paul, and Martin Luther, Paul Tillich, John Bunyan, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, T. S. Eliot, and the American Founders to explain the foundation of constitutional and God-given rights.

The writings and actions of all of these thinkers who had gone before him, King demonstrated, were his teachers and available to him as to all men capable of rising above time and place and accidents of birth. As a rational man, and not merely as a black man, he was informed and guided by these profound thinkers in his efforts to lead the nation to fulfill the promise of America’s founding. He reminded us that there are just laws and unjust laws, and that we must look to the eternal and natural law for guidance. Rejecting the polarizing positions of both complacency, on the one hand, and bitterness and hatred, on the other, Dr. King advocated love and nonviolent protest. The birthright of freedom speaks to all men who will listen and the justice of the cause must be not ignored.

We would do well to pause and remember this towering figure on this somber anniversary, but also to read and reread his writings. I especially recommend his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” where he connects the actions that brought him notoriety to the foundations of America and implored that we look to America’s founding as the best hope for guidance. “One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”

Photo credit:  Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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About Elizabeth Eastman

Elizabeth Eastman holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Claremont Graduate School, an M.A. in Liberal Education from St. John’s College, and a B.A. in French Literature and Civilization from Scripps College. She has taught in political science and history departments and in the liberal studies programs at colleges and universities around the country. She was the 2020-21 senior scholar in residence at the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization in Boulder, Colorado.