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)


23 Comments so far. Comments are closed.
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  21. While spelinking, I wondered into your site. Your statement about the lack of content in modern speeches is something that I have been pondering for some time. It is easier for me to remember quotes from dead presidents or political figures like King than the cultural figures that have graced the podium in the last 30 years. “I have a Dream” was replaced with “I am not a crook”. “Ask not what your country can do for you, etc …” is now “I did not have sexual relation with that woman”. How can they preach moral justice when they are the product of our current culture? Have we not faced the hardship that drove the thoughts and inspiring words of decades past?

  22. Glad the speech moved you as well. King was an incredible speaker, in addition to his other qualities. I spent some time this morning listening to FDR, King, and others at http://www.americanrhetoric.com, and it underscored what I wrote earlier…we lack leadership that can inspire, leadership that can persuade.

    Focusing solely on the Democrats, because I’m still not able to fairly look at the President and judge his rhetorical skills (though I suspect even a fair analysis wouldn’t be favorable), we’re lacking political figures who can command our respect because they inspire our loyalty.

    In the 2004 elections, the only speech I heard that truly moved me…that I come back to even today, because of its inspirational rhetoric, is Barack Obama’s keynote at the DNC. The last 10 minutes or so are almost worthy of mention along with FDR and King.

  23. David Airth,

    I heard your favorite passage from King’s speech on CBC radio today. It is the first time I heard it and I found it as incredible and inspiring as you did. I don’t remember King’s birthday being as poignant as this year. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times, that so many who dismissed him are in power and our noticing a general retreat from his vision. He still is a magnificent lightening rod for many of us.