Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a Dream” speech before a huge crowd at the August 28, 1963 March on Washington, D.C. The key to understanding King’s speech is his appeal to the notion of a “promissory note,” of principles asserted in the “Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”

Significantly, King was not a proponent of “identity politics,” of black power, because he argued, as the African-American scholar Shelby Steele correctly states, “whites were obligated to morality and democratic principles.” Steele adds that black Americans are obligated “to principles,” not “to black people as a class.”

These principles “ensure the ennobling conditions that free societies aspire to: freedom for the individual, the same rights for all individuals, equality under the law, equality of opportunity, and an inherent right to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’.” King sought to dissociate American culture from its “racist past through principle and individual responsibility.”

This is the stuff out of which King’s dream was made. His dream expresses the true meaning of the American creed, King said, appealing to the nation’s moral character, affirming the deep truth about our God-created humanity, which Thomas Jefferson, the architect of the Declaration of Independence, also expressed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”

Lincoln helped to fulfill the “abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times” asserted by Jefferson, the architect of the Declaration, or the “promissory note,” as King put it. Lincoln fulfilled this note, in principle, with the 1862 Emancipation Proclamation. But it was not, in fact, fully implemented until the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

In this light, we can say that we are not a “systemically” racist society, which is not to deny that there are racists and racism.

Read more at The Catholic Thing

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