How MLK Embodied Our Founding Principles

Nearly 60 years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

King’s powerful plea for equal rights has resonated with Americans ever since, in no small part because his message was wrapped in an enlightened patriotism. He understood that the best way to fight bigotry was by returning to the vision of universal human dignity the American Founders articulated in our nation’s founding documents.

In 1963, African Americans faced intense oppression. Segregation laws and widespread racial prejudice denied them equal opportunity. America clearly wasn’t living up to the Founders’ ideal of human equality, so it’s easy to understand why many black Americans felt alienated from their country and wanted revolutionary change.

King, however, did not repudiate his American heritage. If anything, he clung more closely to it.

At the Lincoln Memorial, he said:

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(emphasis added).

In King’s mind, the solution to the injustices of American life could be discovered right in the very documents that birthed our country. King wanted to extend the same benefits of citizenship to African Americans who had been excluded from them for so long. He “refuse[d] to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.”

King fought so that all Americans would be treated fairly and given equal opportunities for success. His faith was that we could fight racial injustice in our role as patriotic citizens. Rather than the extremes of revolutionary violence or defeatist retreat, he argued that “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.”

King believed that by respecting one another as equals in citizenship, both white and black Americans could work together to fulfill the promises of the founding.

There is a lot that divides Americans today. But there is so much more that unites us. By laying claim to our nation’s founding principles, King showed Americans today how we can reinvigorate citizenship by living up to the promises at the heart of the American Founding.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by RealClearPublicAffairs on January 16, 2023 and is republished here with permission.

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain


  • Hans Zeiger

    Hans Zeiger is the president of the Jack Miller Center, a national nonprofit organization that connects civic educators, scholars, and concerned citizens who seek to pass along the American political tradition to the next generation.

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2 thoughts on “How MLK Embodied Our Founding Principles

  1. How sad so much of what that man believed and spoke about has been thrown into the trashcan by the loathsome DEI mentality that has infested academia. We are going backwards.

    1. I think the difference is that he was arguing that the country wasn’t living up to its own ideals while the DEI folk argue that the ideals aren’t worth living up to.

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