Us the Living
Nearly 30 years ago, I wrote the following:
Consider the American experiment in democracy as embodied in a thread that runs through the words of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King.
In the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote: “We hold these truths to be self‑evident that all men are created equal.”
Then, in 1863, Lincoln stood on a Pennsylvania battlefield in the aftermath of a two-day bloodbath of Americans killing each other to the tune of 40,000+ casualties. He used that somber occasion to remind us (in a 2-minute speech) that our nation was “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
King brought it full circle 100 years later in a most symbolic fashion when he stood on the steps of Lincoln’s very monument and repeated Jefferson’s very words with particular emphasis on the word all. All three spoke of a sacred belief in a common cultural destiny. Two of them suffered violent deaths for it.
On the 50th anniversary of King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, U. S. Senator (from Maine!) Angus King characterized the occasion as a tribute to a “radical idea … new to the world in 1776, tested in 1865, renewed in 1963 and an idea still new and radical today: All men and women are created equal.”
Senator King’s “and women” qualifier reminds us of the contributions of leaders like Abigail Adams, Harriett Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Harriett Beecher Stowe, and Rosa Parks during the times of Jefferson, Lincoln, and King. (Fearless Prediction: Given history’s tendency to perpetually rewrite itself, I will not be surprised if Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique – written the same year as the I Have a Dream speech – someday takes its place as a critical landmark in our understanding of the evolution of equality in America.)
Some say we have made little progress regarding our attitudes and behaviors relative to equality. The fact that the occupant of the White House during that 50th anniversary was an African-American might suggest otherwise. (As a boy I might have hoped that our country would elect an African-American president in my lifetime, but I would not have predicted it.) I think President Obama got it right on that 50th anniversary when he said,
“On the battlefield of justice, men and women without rank, or wealth, or title, or fame would liberate us all, in ways that our children now take for granted. To dismiss the magnitude of this progress, to suggest as some sometimes do that little has changed, that dishonors the courage and the sacrifice of those who paid the price to march in those years.”
Looking ahead, let us heed Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg:
“It is for us the living” to continue to test whether “any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”
Onward, Malcolm Gauld