No words committed to paper have ever had greater impact than those we celebrate this Saturday, on Independence Day:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
That clarion cry of the sovereign rights of the individual sounded the death knell for the rule of kings in the 19th Century and stood in defiance of totalitarian tyranny across the 20th Century.
The fact that those words were written by a slaveholding Virginian, a man committed to the expansion of an “Empire of Liberty” across the continent (pushing aside, absorbing or destroying the indigenous inhabitants of that continent) reflects an ugly and brutal paradox that continues to haunt America.
On April 3, 1968, just hours before his murder, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to a congregation in Memphis, Tennessee, in what has come to be called the “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop Speech.” Amid his eloquent evocation of a vision of the Promised Land, earned in a toilsome climb up a steep and rugged slope, he made a simple plea:
“All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper.’”
King was speaking specifically of the guarantees of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America — but his words cut fundamentally down to the bedrock profession of the American faith: that all men are created equal.
We must not forget that have come a long way toward fulfilling the promise of those words: A birthright that was, in 1776, confined to white men of property (almost exclusively Protestant Christian in creed) has been expanded — in fits and starts — to include women as well as men, people of all colors and creeds.
Those who seek to portray the America of 2020 as a fundamentally racist nation and society are as dishonest as those who would prefer to pretend that it never was. The United States is not the same nation it was even 50 years ago; legally, culturally and economically we are a far more just and equitable place than we were on April 4, 1968, when King was slain.
We remain an imperfect work-in-progress. We will probably always carry the burden of the twin original sins into which our nation was born; we cannot erase or elide a heritage of slavery and conquest that clashes so profoundly with our founding principles. But neither can we abase ourselves in expiation of those sins, not without destroying the civic faith that has allowed the United States of America — for all of its flaws — to be a beacon of liberty and opportunity in an often dark world for the past 244 years.
Our task is not to fundamentally transform the United States of America. It is something far simpler, more profound — and more challenging — than that:
It is to be true to what we put down on paper.