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:
“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.
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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. 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.
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” 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.