“I have a dream!” For most Americans, Martin Luther King’s vision of 1963 brought about the climactic triumph of truth over the blindness of prejudice and hatred. Even as civilization had progressed in many ways, the horrors of slavery and racism persisted so long as basic truths remained side-stepped by other values—majority interest, personal convenience, or even the Southern states’ “freedom of choice”. This week, with MLK Day falling just days before the year anniversary of the first African American President of the United States, invites us to reflect with gratitude on America’s hard fought battle for its “liberty and justice for all,” but also, perhaps, to ask a necessary question: only forty years later, can Martin Luther King’s dream still stand?
Courageous men and women, including politicians, had long been laying the groundwork for that preacher’s glorious victory. A century before him, President Lincoln, while seeking to preserve the union, nevertheless refused to budge on the controversial issue of slavery; and his conviction-based politics eventually cost him his life.
Interestingly enough, for Lincoln and many others like him, neither economic pressure nor convenience could legitimize slavery—nor, apparently, could the previous court precedent of Scott vs. Sanford. (One might still imagine the Southerners’ outcry for the North to “mind its own business” and stay out of the privacy of their plantations.) Thankfully, the heroes of the 19th century recognized what was at stake, and their actions set the stage for the extraordinary progress still to come.
By the 1960’s, following the publicized horrors of Nazi Germany and the triumph of women’s suffrage, one thing at least must have been crystal clear: persons have rights, not by race, sex, or creed—nor simply because of majority opinion—but because they are persons. Their common humanity gives them their human rights; and in 1963 Dr. King hammered one last nail into the coffin of legalized inequality.
Those two centuries of Freedom’s expansion have much to say to those who today find themselves entrusted with that torch. Such valiant opposition as the civil rights movement founded itself solidly upon the truth of the equal dignity of all human persons. This real value is something from within, not from without; it comes from nature—or God—and not from government. We possess it in sickness or in health, whether richer or poorer, in life’s later stages, early stages, and fetal stages, till natural death do we part.
On the contrary, if Government should simply decide for itself what is right and who has rights (a position all too common in today’s “culture of death”), then Hitler was justified, and Lincoln was a fool—and MLK’s beautiful dream is nothing more than rhetoric—or, worse, an imposition of his religious ideology.
If the foundation of rights goes no further than the will of the majority or government’s arbitrary decree, and if such moral truth is merely a “private thing” which ought sit back and “tolerate” opposed opinions (…sound familiar?), then the so called “heroes” of human rights are merely tactful orators or ideological fanatics, and all cries against legalized abuse must remain silent.
Freedom and rights have a solid future only if they have a true and lasting foundation; there are no real rights if there is only arbitrary “truth”. And the most uncanny portrait is an American—white, black, Jew, Christian, Muslim, or Atheist—claiming human rights as founded solely upon the free choice of the voting majority.
No political ideology, and not even the most traumatic personal need (as that of a woman’s anguish before an unwanted pregnancy), must lead this nation to dispense with the fundamental right owed to every human being.
Even as this nation enjoys another year of its first African American president, it seems we still may have much to learn from those who have gone before us. How long and hard has been the struggle to make this fundamental truth heard! What still remains for the bell of freedom to finally ring—for all persons? Let us not regress on this glorious trail which such heroes have blazed for us—and at such high cost. Let us rather continue their struggle, enlightening all men and women to the true and universal dignity underlying all human rights.
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