“Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”
— Martin Luther King Jr.
When it comes to historical figures, people often feel either a need to embrace them entirely, ignoring or denying contradictory or troubling things that they said or did. The other, mirror-image tendency is to focus on their flaws and use that as an excuse to discount the person’s contributions.
Both approaches are misguided. We can learn from icons, appreciate the good they did and grapple with the things with which we disagree. That’s what makes history interesting and relevant. We’re all human beings, we all have achievements and flaws. That’s no different for historical icons.
Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. We certainly didn’t agree with all the policies and ideas that he embraced over his lifetime, especially as he came to embrace government and race-based solutions to genuine civil-rights problems. But there’s no doubt that he helped achieve important gains in the area of equality, and some of his words are amazingly stirring even to this day.
We enjoy rereading the “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered Aug. 28, 1963, in Washington, D.C., at a march he organized at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
“In a sense we have come to our nation’s Capitol to cash a check,” he said. “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. The note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
The Rev. King appealed directly to the foundation of our free society, echoing the beautiful words of the Declaration. He said the nation had defaulted on its obligation to African-Americans, having in essence “given the Negro a bad check.” But the speech didn’t dwell on the negative or engage in anger, bitterness or recite a long list of unfairness and injustice. Instead it called for “the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.”
“In the process of gaining our rightful place,” he said, “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.”
He was practical and hopeful. And his words soared — so much so that the speech has become a well-known testament to the hopes and aspirations of a people who were denied by legal and social restrictions the ability to achieve success and freedom.
“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.”
Great words. Great dream. The nation has made great progress toward its fulfillment, which is a testament to the movement he helped direct. Was that movement flawed? Yes. Did it veer off course in the following years as it emphasized the group over individual initiative? Yes. Nevertheless, we remain inspired by the Rev. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the important ideas it espoused.