Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Promises of the American RevolutionJanuary 13, 2020
Over the course of MLK Weekend in 2020, the Museum honored the life, service, and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Throughout many of his speeches and writings, Dr. King powerfully invoked the words and messages of the American Revolution in his calls for civil and economic rights and in speaking out against racism. By invoking the words of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, Dr. King returned often to a central tenet of his work: holding America and its people to the promise of “the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” to all men, a promise made by the Founders against the backdrop of the practice of slavery and the displacement of Native peoples.
In his open Letter from Birmingham Jail written on April 16, 1963 following his arrest for participating in a non-violent demonstration against segregation, Dr. King wrote at length about the moral responsibility to fight against injustice with non-violent tactics, using America’s promises, and the people’s ownership to those promises, as a guide.
We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America. Before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson scratched across the pages of history the majestic word of the Declaration of Independence, we were here.Martin Luther King, Letter from Birmingham Jail
Later in 1963 on Aug. 28, Dr. King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In the speech, Dr. King drew directly on the promises made in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to call for civil rights and an end to racism.
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.Martin Luther King, "I Have a Dream"
In his “Beyond Vietnam” speech on April 4, 1967 at Riverside Church in New York City, when he was named co-chairperson of Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, Dr. King spoke out against the Vietnam War and to “recapture the revolutionary spirit” of social justice in America.
Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores, and thereby speed the day when ‘every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.’Martin Luther King, "Beyond Vietnam"
Almost exactly a year later on April 3, 1968, the eve of his assassination, Dr. King gave his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” address at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn. In standing with the Memphis sanitation workers on strike, Dr. King struck a familiar chord in tying the striking workers’ economic rights to their natural human rights and their civil rights as promised in the founding documents.
But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And so just as I say we aren't going to let any dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren't going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on. We need all of you.Martin Luther King, "I've Been to the Mountaintop"
He returned to the founding documents later in his address.
Because if I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters. And I knew that as they were sitting in, they were really standing up for the best in the American dream and taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy, which were dug deep by the founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.Martin Luther King, "I've Been to the Mountaintop"
Over MLK Weekend at the Museum, guests discovered the ongoing legacy of the American Revolution and learned what it takes to change the world as the Museum honored Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Day of Service.