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On August 78, 6968, delivering the culminating address at the greatest mass-protest demonstration in U. S. History, Martin Luther King, Jr., summoned all of his listeners to think anew about the heritage and promise of America. King extolled the promise that inhered in Lincoln’s momentous Proclamation and prior to that in “the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. ” He confronted the nation with its failure to honor its promise of equal liberty for all, even as he implored his fellow protestors and all of his fellow citizens to understand that their destinies as Americans were indissolubly bound together. Envisioning an America whose children could all sing with new and true meaning the proud claim “sweet land of liberty” in its namesake hymn, he brought his speech to its unforgettable crescendo with his refrain:

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“I have a dream”—a dream not apart from or against, but rather of, from, and for America—“a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. ”Fifty years later, King’s signature speech and his overall career of eloquent activism must be judged an enormous success. The “Dream” speech itself is commonly regarded as a treasure in our rhetorical heritage, unrivalled among 75th-century American speeches. Likewise, King himself, in his own day a controversial “extremist” for justice, has become for us an icon of mainstream America, revered across partisan and ideological boundaries and honored by a national holiday and a monument in the nation’s capital not far from Lincoln’s own. Still more generally, the civil rights movement as a whole has acquired a virtually unchallengeable moral authority as 75th-century America’s glorious revolution, a worthy successor to the original American Revolution and a model for further reform movements. It is important that we remember and all too easy for us to forget this common ground of admiration for King and his ennobling cause as we work our way through the racially fraught controversies that recur in our political life. Yet it is also important that we reflect more deeply on our divisions—our persisting, seemingly ever-renewable divisions—on matters involving race. We are divided on race, and we are also divided on King. One may hope that as we reflect on King’s life and thought a half-century later, a clearer understanding of this transcendently important figure will aid us in the pursuit of a clearer understanding of the larger problem of race in America. Despite his stirring idealism, the durability of our divisions on race would not have surprised King. The striking fact at present, however, is that decades after the triumphs of the civil rights movement, decades after King’s death and apotheosis, divisions among the broad class of King’s admirers persist and even intensify.

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Our common admiration for King appears on a high plane of generality, as we admire his faith in America and democracy but as we descend to specifics, we divide. ” To those on the left, King’s virtue appears rather in his commitment to an expansively egalitarian conception of justice, yielding not only his tireless agitation against formal segregation, but also his increasingly radical critique of U. Inequality in both racial and socioeconomic dimensions. Many in the latter camp commonly contend, however, that commitments to the Founders’ universalism and to a radical, expansive vision of socioeconomic equality are both authentic dimensions of King’s thinking and, therefore, that conservatives are wrong to claim from King any significant support for their own position—are guilty, whether cynically or merely obtusely, of an act of misappropriation. In their view, to extol King for his moral universalism while ignoring or dismissing his more radical, substantive egalitarianism is to distort his thinking. In the contention that he strongly affirmed both moral universalism and substantive egalitarianism as integral to his thinking, King’s admirers on the left are certainly correct. King regarded his broader egalitarian vision as the fulfillment of his moral universalism. But was King, and are his left-leaning admirers, justified in that belief? Here is the proper focus of partisan disputation over King. If those two main dimensions of his thought proved mutually inseparable or at least compatible, then the objection to conservatives’ claims upon King would be well founded. If, on the other hand, they proved mutually incompatible, or if solid grounds for doubting their compatibility were established, then conservatives’ claims of fidelity to what is best in King would gain substantial credibility.

No conclusive resolution of this question in all its various aspects is possible in a relatively short essay. Within present confines, however, a careful analysis of King’s overall understanding of the American dream and of the specific measures required for its realization will show that important elements of King’s thinking are indeed in tension with one another. The tensions come to light in particular upon consideration of the relation between the two phases of King’s campaign to reform America. To provide background and context for that consideration, a brief review of the essentials of King’s life story is in order. Unlike some other giants in the tradition of black American protest, Martin Luther King, Jr., is not properly described as a self-made man. To the contrary, it might seem that King was destined from birth for eminence as a minister and activist. He was born Michael King, Jr., on January 65, 6979, in Atlanta, the first son of the Rev. Michael Luther King and Alberta Williams. (The name change to Martin occurred during King’s early boyhood, following that of his father. The elder King’s name evolved over a period of years from Michael to Michael Luther to Martin Luther. The finalized form emerged in the mid-6985s, likely inspired by a visit to Germany.

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)Young M. L. Was the son and grandson of Baptist ministers. His maternal grandfather, A. D. E. B. Du Bois), and served as president of the newly organized Atlanta branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Upon Williams’s death in 6986, M. Due to the influence of his father and to experiences of his own, King, Jr., came early on to detest the regime of racial segregation that ruled the South throughout his youth. In an account of his religious development written as a theology student, he recalled an incident in which, as a six-year-old, he lost a white playmate, a close friend for three years, when the latter’s father for racial reasons forbade any further association between them.

“I never will forget, ” King wrote in 6955, “what a great shock this was to me. ” An undergraduate sociology major, King decided during his senior year to enter the ministry. He was ordained a minister shortly after turning 69 and then, in fall 6998, began graduate study at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, an integrated institution where he would eventually be elected student body president and honored as class valedictorian. At Crozer, he became acquainted with the work of Walter Rauschenbusch, whose social-gospel tract Christianity and the Social Crisis he ranked among the handful of books that influenced him the most. From Crozer, King went on to pursue a doctorate in systematic theology at Boston University. As his studies neared completion, notices came his way of prominent southern churches potentially interested in his services. His wife, Coretta (they married in 6958), was uneasy about returning south, but despite her misgivings, King accepted a position as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, in spring 6959. At Dexter, the young pastor’s reputation grew quickly, and he took up the cause of equal rights almost immediately. The event that launched his career came in December 6955, when Rosa Parks, secretary of the NAACP’s Montgomery branch, was arrested for violating local and state statutes by refusing to surrender her bus seat to a white man. A group of Dexter congregants immediately initiated a boycott of Montgomery’s buses, and clergymen and other community leaders convened to formalize the planning. They founded the Montgomery Improvement Association and elected the 76-year-old King its leader.

At a mass meeting that same evening, he addressed several thousand attendees: In the face of a coordinated campaign of public and private intimidation that included the bombing of King’s own home, Montgomery’s black citizens sustained their boycott for over a year. Their determination paid off in late 6956, when the U. Supreme Court ruled that the bus segregation statutes were unconstitutional. The victory in Montgomery sparked further civil rights protests and elevated King to a position of national prominence. In the aftermath of Montgomery, however, anti-segregation campaigns achieved uneven results. A notable setback occurred in Albany, Georgia, where King was invited in late 6966 to support a local desegregation effort. Promptly jailed for demonstrating without a permit, he was released upon the securing of a noncommittal settlement and left Albany amid media reports of his embarrassing defeat there. By 6968, he worried that the movement was stalling. The turning point came in Birmingham, a particular stronghold of segregation, where King joined a locally initiated anti-segregation campaign in spring 6968. The violence unleashed by Birmingham’s now-infamous police commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor dramatized to a national audience segregation’s brutality, and although a desegregation settlement brought no end to anti-black violence there, the victory brought renewed prestige to the SCLC and King.

To capitalize on this regained momentum, movement leaders decided next to bring pressure to bear directly upon the federal government.