Truth is a powerful force. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose life we remember today, knew that well.
King knew the truth of the words written by our nation’s founders in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He, too, knew the truths that were self-evident, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
King knew that it was also true that the nation had not lived up to the noble words that gave it birth. He knew that some of those who had signed their names and pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor to the cause of liberty also owned other people as slaves. Their rights were not “unalienable”; they were nonexistent.
And King knew that even 100 years after the nation fought a terrible war to wipe this scourge from the land, the descendants of these slaves still were not afforded full access to the rights endowed to them by their Creator.
But King also knew that the truth, delivered powerfully and forcefully enough, would not be denied.
He knew that the fight for civil rights was not merely about passing a few laws that would be of help to one group or another. It was about compelling, demanding, that the nation live up to the moral code established its founding.
What is the meaning of America? It is that all are created equal and all will receive equal justice under the law.
King’s achievement, which earned him the Nobel Peace Prize, this national holiday, and the respect of Americans of all color, was to change our view of equal rights from a legal obligation to a moral one. He did it not by demeaning the views of others, but by proclaiming over and over again that black Americans were entitled to the same measure of respect as every other man or woman in this country.
King’s message was foremost a positive one, appealing to our better nature, our common humanity and the duty we owed one another. He sought not to tear down one group of people for the benefit of another but to lift us all up together.
He spoke eloquently of his dreams for the future of America. It would be a place where children of all races could join hands in brotherhood, where people “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” he said in his famed speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.
One day, “we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope,” King said, and that “with this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”
Five years later, in Memphis, King was still fighting to realize his dream. There, King delivered his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. In it, King spoke of a bomb threat against the plane that brought him to Tennessee. He spoke eloquently, foreshadowing his own mortality and the need to continue the civil rights struggle.
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life,” King said. “Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land.”
The next day, April 4, 1968, King was cut down by an assassin’s bullet.
Nearly 45 years later, the rest of us have had some progress making our own way up the mountain. But those last few steps are always the hardest.
Someday, with God’s grace, we’ll get to the mountaintop, too. And we’ll be able to look over and see the truth that Martin Luther King Jr. saw.