The United States, perhaps unique in the world, is a nation of
documents that are peculiarly significant to our identity, because we
were founded on written principles that each generation must explore
and amplify.

Monday honors the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his contributions to
the great canon of political and moral principles that define ourselves
and our ideals. King is most often described as a “civil rights leader”
and, while the categorization is indeed accurate and we were reminded
of it with the recent death of Rosa Parks, it tends to pigeonhole the

At a crucial point in American history, the turbulent ’60s,
King eloquently made the case that the great promise of the Declaration
of Independence and the Constitution had not yet been fulfilled for all
our citizens. His “I Have a Dream” and “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”
speeches and his “Letter From Birmingham Jail” are essential reading in
any course of American history because they are American history.

The “Mountaintop” speech is especially poignant both because of its
optimism and because, in it, he seemed to foretell his death:

just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the
mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may
not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a
people, will get to the promised land.” And, because of people like
King who appear throughout our history, we will. He was murdered the
next day.

King was not always so eloquent. He could be direct
and this quotation is about as succinct a summation of equal protection
as it gets: “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but
it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.”

In his most famous speech, in 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln
Memorial, he harkened back to America’s founding document. “I have a
dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true
meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that
all men are created equal.’ “

King had great virtues and some
failings, and he has been treated to the debunking that all heroes
receive from posterity. The Founding Fathers were no angels, but
neither does that diminish the force of their ideals and the conviction
with which they held them. And King is of that number.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)