January 2005
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Day January 17, 2005

We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt…

(crossposted from Progressive Commons)

Listening to Martin Luther King’s "I Have a Dream" speech this morning, I was struck by how much has changed in public discourse. In recent years, no political figure has commanded the language as masterfully as King, and the net result is that we fail to persuade, we fail to inspire. We fail to move our own hearts, and rely instead on logic and argument, by which we convince only those with whom we already agree. Today, on Martin Luther King Day, it’s worth listening to the words that have inspired us in the past, and think about how we might recover our ability to inspire, as an essential precondition to recovering our ability to lead.

King’s "I Have a Dream" has more famous passages, of course, by my favorite is:

In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. 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."

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

Written, of course, in the context of our nation’s great struggle over civil rights and racial equality, King’s words are increasingly applicable to all Americans. As the effects of post-WWII prosperity wane, as the income disparities between Americans grow, as millions lack or lose basic health insurance, we need to reflect upon what "cashing the check" written by the Founders will mean in our generation. Such a vision, and the ability to articulate that vision in words that stir the heart, is essential to opposing a new and rising orthodoxy which depicts intolerance and inequality as essentially American.

Progressives refuse to believe that intolerance and savage inequality are inherently American. We refuse to believe, along with Dr. King, that the bank of justice is bankrupt.

(MLK: I Have A Dream mp3)