As a small boy, my father had me memorize the Gettysburg Address.
I am not sure why, as dozens of other documents had import – but this one he wanted me to know. I stumble now, did not then. Now, too, I wonder why it mattered so.
I recently reread it, and then Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered 100 years after Lincoln’s address. Both moved me, especially as both men would – it seems – would be unhappy with today.
Both men believed in the American Dream. Both would disavow divisions, abandonment of individual liberty and opportunity in favor of outcome leveling, and Marxism, coercion of what must come from the heart.
Both men put hope in what King called “the promises of democracy.” Lincoln and King would have no time for Critical Race Theory, redividing the country by skin color. Neither would they take the low road of racism over principled unity.
King’s words are profound, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” “Mountaintop,” and “I Have a Dream.” The last is the real answer to Critical Race Theory, violent riots, cross-allegations of racism, condemnation of the American Dream.
King was thinking of Lincoln when he spoke in DC that hot August day, 1963.
Lincoln had begun, “Four score and seven years ago …,” recalling the Declaration of Independence, 1776. King began, “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.”
The tone, tempo, and theme turned on hope. King called Lincoln’s Declaration “a great beacon of hope to millions…,” not an abandonment of ideals, but fulfillment of them. Like Lincoln, King would not disavow our Constitution, Declaration, or intent of the Founders.
King’s faith was grounded in that Constitution, Declaration, and in God.
“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir,” he said. “This note was a promise that all men – yes, black men as well as white men – would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Could he be clearer? The point was not to denigrate opportunity, liberty, or America’s promise, but to make it real. He spoke of “great vaults of opportunity,” “We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now.” What did Lincoln speak about, if not “the great urgency of now,” in time that – for both men – was short?
Violence, bitterness, and hatred? What would King say? Like Lincoln, King knew violence begets violence. “There is something that I must say … In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds … not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”
He went on: “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline … must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.” Distrust whites? No. Work “must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers …have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny … their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.” Is that not, in a nutshell, America?
Resentment and despair? No. “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.” Why? Because, like Lincoln, King had a dream. And their dream is ours – one America.
Said King: “Even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will … live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
Is that not our belief, too, as Americans? Is that not what unifies us?
You see, Lincoln and King knew something modern disputants do not. They knew we are unique, we Americans. Their point was unity. King made it personal. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
King did not want material leveling, groupthink, anger. He wanted something lasting – equality, respect based on “content of their character.” What is more American?
The rest of King’s speech centered on hope and faith. “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” Like Lincoln, he hoped our “better angels” might bring harmony. “With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” So, all said, King believed in America, not an alternative.
You wonder if I have missed something. King’s answer. “This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning: My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrims’ pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”
Lincoln – in some evanescent way – must have hoped on a figure like King speaking of hope, unity, not division. King, in his time, must have hoped for future leaders of good hearts, real faith, caring to transcend division.
“When this happens, and when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last.”
Rereading the Gettysburg Address and King, I am taken with how the two align and should with us. Yes, with us. Their words show destiny on their shoulder and a conscious handing forward of expectations – across generations – to us. From both men flows hope, vested in us.
Maybe that is why my father pointed me to the Gettysburg Address, not another word. It is about hope, believing the best lives within each of us, and finding it.
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