George Washington, Thomas Paine, Susan B. Anthony, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr. What does this list have in common?
They are all patriots who fervently believed in, and help define, the American dream. Each one, in a unique way, was an outcast, but ascended to the highest level of political and cultural influence to shape the nation and the world. They each strove against the highest odds to challenge America to live up to its highest aspirations.
Perhaps the most unlikely of these heroes is King. As an African-American born on January 15, 1929, one would have been hard pressed to believe at the time that a national holiday would exist in his honor. Unlike Washington, he was pacifist and embraced nonviolent protest, but in essence he mobilized a national citizens’ volunteer army to achieve his revolutionary objectives.
Although he never wrote a book as influential and riveting as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, his “I Have a Dream” speech, and others, inspired the nation to do great things. He did not have to fight against gender discrimination like Anthony, however he led a movement to challenge deep-seated racial prejudice and hatred. Unlike Lincoln, he did not preside in public office trying to maintain the Union, but he laid down his life for the ideals he believed.
Like the Founding Fathers and other great patriots who have succeeded them, King was inspired by, and articulated as his primary motivating force, the Declaration of Independence. That Declaration – like no other – articulates our nation’s binding beliefs: revolution, unalienable rights, the rule of law, the Social Compact, equality, unalienable rights, and limited government. Just as the founders and others had done before him, he harkened to all of those principles in his quest for racial justice.
In his I Have a Dream Speech, he remarked, “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.” King was right.
King’s combination of inspirational rhetoric combined with organized action is the finest example of civil rights activism in American history. His leadership is a shining example for all Americans regardless of race, creed, religion, gender, or heritage. King’s courage and perseverance are traits that are sorely lacking in today’s environment.
King’s legacy should not be relegated to a single day in the year. That’s why my then 10 year old daughter Leah and I included him as a vital part of Patriot Week. Patriot Week renews America’s spirit by celebrating the First Principles, Founding Fathers and other Patriots, vital documents and speeches, and flags that make America the greatest nation in world history.
Anchored by the key dates of September 11 (the anniversary of the terrorists attacks) and September 17 (Constitution Day, the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution), the schedule for each day has a separate focus. King is commemorated in connection with his tremendous contribution regarding the First Principle of racial equality. We also honor King outside of 9/11-9/17 by organizing school activities in Detroit around his birthday.
King passed away almost 50 years ago. Our generation has a responsibility to ensure that his dream stays alive today and tomorrow.