The Corner

Martin Luther King Jr. and the Promise of the Constitution

The remarks delivered by Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington in August 1963 are conventionally known as his “I Have a Dream” speech, but this speech might also be titled “The Constitution Has a Promise.” King opened his remarks with attention to the highest secular law of this nation: the Constitution and its promise of equality before the law and its implicit purpose to guarantee the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness enumerated in the Declaration of Independence.

In the decades leading up to King’s speech, the statutes of the federal government and the laws of various states waged war against this higher law. Legally mandated racial segregation, discrimination, and disenfranchisement made a mockery of the Constitution’s promises. This mockery fell with leaden weights upon the backs of those accounted “blacks,” but it also assailed the commonwealth as a whole. That multi-generational perpetuation of injustice corrupted political rhetoric and thinking about politics.

The jumps through the intellectual hoops necessary to defend a system of institutionalized racial oppression can end up destroying a republic from within. These defenses seek to dissolve the individual within the collective, making each individual only a representative of a single racial type. Such defenses all too often call for a suspension of individual judgment, subjecting free thought to the paranoid imperialism of mass prejudice.

The old segregation era was a time of institutionalized bigotry, and the maintenance of that bigotry involved a wholesale attack upon the principles of free association, free speech, democratic republicanism, intellectual inquiry, and civic individualism. The March on Washington aimed in part to tear down those institutions of racial prejudice in order to realize something of the Constitution’s promise.

Many key steps have been taken toward that end. Formalized discrimination has been weakened. The franchise — even in former segregation strongholds — has been considerably expanded. Opportunity has expanded its reach across racial and ethnic lines.

Much has been accomplished, but many challenges abide. There still exist racial disparities. There still exist those who would use racial demagoguery to accumulate more power to themselves. There still exist those who seek to nullify individual diversity through the appeal to skin tone. Forces of racial collectivism still persist. Moreover, social changes (such as the breakdown of the family) and the economic hollowing out of the middle and working classes pose further difficulties to Americans of all races, colors, and creeds.

We can face these challenges in the example of King and his fellow marchers at their best: by taking on the enterprise of thinking for ourselves to see others as they are, by combining a desire for the best with a recognition of human limits, and by resolving to search for solutions in accord with our ethics and the principles of a free society.

On that summer afternoon 50 years ago, King sought to remind the United States of a higher, better purpose: to be a republic of law toward the protection of individual dignity and the promotion of freedom. He recalled the commitments of the Declaration and the Constitution, and he conjured a vision of the possibilities of the United States — the hope of individual emancipation from the dogma of collective racial imprisonment and the aspiration of individuals working toward the good in a freer, fairer world.

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