On August 28, 1963, in the most famous moment of the greatest mass-protest demonstration in US history, Martin Luther King, Jr., declared:

I say to you, my friends, that even though we must face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream…. I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!

As he explained in his book Why We Can’t Wait, published later that same year, King saw the Civil Rights Movement as “America’s third revolution,” continuing and heralding the completion of the first two. In the Dream speech, he extolled “the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence,” which set forth the original revolution’s promise to secure to all Americans the natural, unalienable rights with which humankind is endowed by their Creator. The second American revolution figured still more prominently. “We stand” in Abraham Lincoln’s “symbolic shadow,” King observed, as he spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in the hundredth anniversary year of the Emancipation Proclamation. His dream, he said, was a dream “deeply rooted in the American Dream.”

King’s Dream speech is commonly regarded as the greatest American speech of the twentieth century, and King himself has been apotheosized in the decades following his death. The Great Integrator has joined the Great Emancipator in the pantheon of immortal heroes of the American Republic. So it comes that each January Americans commemorate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., as a national holiday.

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Four Score and Seven Years Later

This January, we observe the eighty-seventh anniversary—the four-score-and-seven-years’ anniversary—of King’s birth. The date prompts more troubling reflections on the relation of King to Lincoln and on our present circumstances. Via the language of “four score and seven,” Lincoln at Gettysburg reminded his listeners of a biblical reflection on human mortality (see Psalm 90:10). Amid the nation’s greatest peril, he raised the worrisome question whether nations, too, including this seemingly exceptional republic, have a natural lifespan. Although we are not presently “engaged in a great civil war,” our nation is sharply divided over race—perhaps more sharply and dangerously than at any other point in the post-1960s, post-King, post-Civil Rights era.

Our contemporary divisions over race once again touch upon America’s first principles. Controversies over the boundaries of permissible speech on college campuses, over universities’ use of racial and ethnic classifications in admissions decisions, over numerous states’ enactment of stricter voter-registration laws, and above all over the deaths of various African Americans in encounters with police officers and the consequent emergence of the “Black Lives Matter” protest movement—all of these reveal deep divisions regarding the nature and grounds of rights, the requisites for the rule of law, the proper mode of racial integration, and even the grounds of allegiance to or identification with America. One wonders how many African Americans today harbor some hardened, purified variant—the alienation without the longing or hopefulness—of the sentiment expressed by W.E.B. Du Bois at the dawn of the previous century: “an American, a Negro … two warring ideals in one dark body.”

Today we are called to reflect anew on the vision and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., not in mere deference to ceremonial custom or civic piety but instead as Lincoln reflected on the Founders, mindful of the crisis of the times. Such reflection proves, however, to be no simple matter. Though nearly all Americans revere King and affirm the equal-rights cause for which he labored, at a more concrete level we find divisions about King comparable to our divisions over other matters involving race. We agree in admiring King without agreeing on specifically what in King’s thought and activism is admirable.

What Was King’s Vision for Racial Reform?

For some, what distinguishes and elevates King is his core commitment to a color-blind regime of equality in civil and political rights. For others, it is his militant, egalitarian radicalism, issuing in a commitment to thoroughgoing social-democratic (or democratic-socialist) revolution. Likewise, for some the heightened race-consciousness of today’s protesters signifies a departure from the path marked by King, whereas for others it signifies a continuation or renewal.

Each of these positions contains a portion of truth. We divide on King due not only to our own partisanship but also to the heterogeneity of King’s thinking. Granted, on the question of his overall intention or self-understanding, King’s partisans on the social-democratic Left are more justified than those on the classical-liberal Right in laying claim to him as one of their own. More just than the claims of either faction, however, would be the observation that amid a brief career marked by continuous and urgent activism, King failed to achieve a fully coherent program or vision of racial reform in the United States.

We see this by considering King’s division of the Civil Rights Movement into two phases. The first phase, culminating in the landmark legislative accomplishments of the mid-1960s (the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act), was directed against segregation and state-sanctioned discrimination by color. King characterized it simply as a “demand [for] our citizenship and manhood.” Its primary object fully accorded with classical liberal principles: equality under laws framed to secure the civil and political rights proper to US citizens and the natural rights proper to free, rational, self-governing persons. A corollary was a program of internal or cultural reform to undo the demoralization and the corrosion of institutions of civil society effected by a long experience of subordination.

Thus conceiving of first-phase objectives, King echoed eminent predecessors in the tradition of African-American protest and uplift. The founding father of that tradition, Frederick Douglass, never tired of saying, “He who would be free, must himself strike the blow.” Likewise King: “if first-class citizenship is to become a reality for the Negro he must assume primary responsibility for making it so.” Moreover, as he echoed the great agitators Douglass and Du Bois, he also echoed Booker T. Washington, who stressed the other dimension of responsibility: “It is important and right that all the privileges of the law be ours, but it is vastly more important that we be prepared for the exercise of these privileges.”

When King argued, “The Negro must work on two fronts,” he meant that black Americans’ agency must be directed inwardly, toward self-improvement, as well as outwardly in protest. “Let us be honest with ourselves,” he implored in 1957, and proceeded to recite statistics on single parenthood and criminality, among other indicators of social dysfunction. On the constructive side, he called for the pursuit of excellence among all classes and in all fields of endeavor, and he insisted on judging excellence by color-blind standards:

We cannot aim merely to be good Negro teachers, good Negro doctors, good Negro ministers, good Negro skilled laborers. We must set out to do a good job, irrespective of race . . . If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper . . . sweep streets so well that all the host of Heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper, who swept his job well.”

King held the securing of formal rights to be urgently necessary but woefully incomplete. Phase two would concern socioeconomic outcomes: “the realization of equality,” as he phrased it, or the fruitful exercise of rights as distinct from the mere opportunity to exercise them.

An Increasingly Expansive Conception of Rights

King asked: “Of what advantage is it to the Negro that he can be served in integrated restaurants . . . if he is bound to the kind of financial servitude which will not allow him . . . even to take his wife out to dine?” The most significant difference between phase one and phase two is that King’s original, two-dimensional conception of self-help—external protest combined with internal self-improvement—gave way in the second phase to a truncated conception, consisting in a one-dimensional call for protest. The two-front war he called for in phase one became a one-front war.

Insisting in the second phase on the primacy of external causes of black disadvantage, King held that the fact of material disadvantage is itself demonstrative of social injustice. Poverty and unemployment, he contended in the concluding chapter of Why We Can’t Wait, constitute an “economic holocaust.” Likewise in The Trumpet of Conscience (1967): “it is murder, psychologically, to deprive a man of a job or an income. . . . You are in a real way depriving him of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In King’s expansive, Progressive-liberal and social-democratic conception of rights, the deprivation consists not only in an unjust withholding of opportunities but also in a public or social failure to provide the requisite jobs and income. He demanded a “massive” new anti-poverty program in the form of a “Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged” (at its core a jobs and income program).

King left unclear the theoretical basis of this expansive conception of rights, but the difficulty is more than merely theoretical. He contended further that the material disadvantages whose remedies he conceived of as rights were the root causes of various social pathologies, and accordingly, he expressed striking confidence in the efficacy of his programmatic remedies. His socioeconomic “Bill of Rights,” he predicted, would “immediately transform the conditions of Negro life. . . . the decline in school dropouts, family breakups, crime rates, illegitimacy, swollen relief rolls and other social evils would stagger the imagination.”

Do King’s Ideas Help Heal Racial Divisions or Exacerbate Them?

Questions arise, especially in the light of subsequent experience. What if King was mistaken in his understanding of the causes and remedies of socioeconomic disadvantage among blacks? If he was mistaken in expecting intensified federal anti-poverty efforts to bring about the desired improvements on the second front, the culture and morale front, then would not an investment in misconceived remedies tend to perpetuate, perhaps even to worsen, the deficiencies in human capital and the other social dysfunctions that troubled him? Further, so far as the incidence of poverty and attendant social problems were correlated with differences in race or color, as King observed they were, then would not the perpetuation of those inequalities also perpetuate the justification for designating beneficiaries of remedial programs by race or color as well as by class?

If the answer to these questions is yes, then what King conceived as temporary measures, instrumental to the achievement of a color-blind political and social order, would become self-perpetuating. In such circumstances, it is hard to see how race relations would not become increasingly strained over time—hard to see how the permanent designation of one class of people as a damaged and protected class would not raise a powerful spirit of resentment or indignation on both or all sides of the racial divide.

Consider the words of Frederick Douglass: “The broadest and bitterest of the black man’s misfortunes is the fact that he is everywhere regarded and treated as an exception to the principles and maxims which apply to other men.” King, whom we revere as the Great Integrator, may have unwittingly propagated arguments more likely to exacerbate than to heal our divisions.

Honoring the Best of King

What, then, of our national reverence for King, formalized by the holiday that prompts these reflections? On the goodness and even the necessity of reverence in a republic, we may cite the authority of James Madison and Abraham Lincoln as well as that of King himself. As all three men also agree, however, it is no less necessary for us to understand than to revere, and it is not easy to do both at once in regard to the same object. However that may be, surely we honor King by paying him the respect of rational scrutiny. As we advance in critical understanding of King, we see that some important divisions present among us are also present in him. To acknowledge this, however, need not negate but should only enlighten our impulse to revere him.

When Lincoln directed “All honor to Jefferson,” he honored not Jefferson the slaveholder, Jefferson the propagator of pseudoscientific racial bigotry, Jefferson the purveyor of mischievous states’ rights rhetoric, or Jefferson the opponent of the Missouri Compromise and proponent of the dubious notion of slavery’s abolition via its expansion and diffusion. He meant to honor not the whole of Jefferson, with all his tensions and inconsistencies, but rather the best of Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. It was in this spirit that King himself honored Lincoln, and in the same spirit we may honor King.

“All honor to King,” we may say, not to the whole but to the best of King. Whether King more wisely placed his faith in a more classical, traditional program of rights and self-elevation or instead in the ministrations of an expanded federal welfare state, we may adjudicate by reference to his and the nation’s first principles. Honor to Martin Luther King, Jr., then, for his profoundly courageous and unforgettably eloquent reaffirmation of the principles and the integrative logic of the Declaration, and for his faith in America as a republican community bound by respect for character over color.