Martin Luther King, Jr. and America’s Promissory Note

On Monday we celebrate one of the greatest Americans history has known, Martin Luther King, Jr. When racial segregation was the rule and not the exception, King powerfully stood against injustice. While by no means the only voice of the Civil Rights Movement, King was integral to its success, both politically and culturally. After all, the entire country pauses life in his honor. Today, we are going to focus on a single phrase from his famous “I Have a Dream Speech.” King commanded from his podium in front of the Lincoln Memorial:

“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.”

Today, many ridicule America’s founders and in many ways, they are right to. But in this line, consistent in much of King’s writing, he acknowledges the power in the documents those extremely flawed men constructed and signed.

King follows the above sentence, his voice reverberating through the packed Washington Mall, with “It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned… America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.” Here, King was able to sift the wheat, that is the words of America’s founding documents, from the chaff, the actions of those documents’ writers.

Martin Luther King, Jr. believed in the American experiment. He believed that flawed people could build wise foundations. To be American is not to throw away the founding creeds, but it is to hold one’s fellow citizens to those creeds. 

As citizens, as human beings, we fail to hold to those creeds daily. When flawed humans fail at those creeds, they also build and fortify institutions that fail at those creeds. There is nothing illogical or unpatriotic about acknowledging systemic injustice within America. The government can be both built on the “promissory note” of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence and fall short and deviate from that foundation. 

As America witnessed during the Civil War, a foundation built on both liberty and slavery will crumble. But that foundation was still partly built on liberty and Abraham Lincoln did not throw that part away in order to work to save the republic. No, he purged the injustice of slavery from the Constitution. He extracted the cancer without killing the patient.

100 years later, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the other voices for Black liberation recognized that the cancer still lingered. Remission wasn’t complete. They worked together in another surgery of that lingering cancerous injustice. They successfully pushed Congress to pass several pieces of Civil Rights legislation.

Today, many people are exhausted with the cancer that still lingers. Police brutality is real. Racial inequality is real. Xenophobia, even in the halls of Congress, is real. But these are cancers to the Constitutional body. They are not the Constitutional body. We must not throw away the Constitution because of the cancers we’ve allowed to grow within it just like we would not kill a person if cancer remained.

King reminds us that the founding documents are promissory notes to all Americans. All people deserve equal rights outlined in the Bill of Rights. All people are created equal and deserve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Let’s honor King and pursue this reality. It may be a never ending cause for justice in our own lifetime, but the arc of history is long.

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.