The Relevance of MLK

To commemorate the official celebration of the anniversary of the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I thought I'd parse his "I have a dream" speech for some contemporary lessons.

1) King believed in the living Constitution:

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. 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." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."
2) King was a Keynesian:
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
Yes, I know that King was using a metaphor. Justice, we might say, is not a limited commodity. But then, the whole point of Keynesian economics is that the same is true of economic activity. That's how the metaphor works. If someone says that the government can't afford some program because the economy is too sluggish to provide the requisite tax revenues, the Keynesian refuses to believe the bank is empty, because the government can always run a deficit that will then lead to a correction.

3) A lesson for Palestinians and Israelis:
there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.
King was much influenced by Gandhi, whose campaign of non-violent protest led to the creation of the Indian state at nearly exactly the same time that the same colonial master was relinquishing control over the territory that would become Israel and Palestine. Non-violence is not always efficacious, and Gandhi himself was notoriously naive in suggesting it might even work against Nazis. But there is no reason to think that a non-violent campaign against statelessness by Palestinians (such as this one) would fall on deaf Israeli ears, especially were it to become the dominant form of protest.

4) King was able to use clearly religious rhetoric (he was a minister after all) in a way that brought people together regardless of their particular sects or beliefs and that was unlikely to alienate non-believers:

No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

And this will be the day -- 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 Pilgrim's pride,

From every mountainside, let freedom ring!


Posted by Mike Dorf