We set aside a national holiday to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. because he welded an ethos of agape love onto the founding principles of the United States. He believed in and worked to create a country where the self-evident truths of human equality would come about through soul force, through the power of radical love, and that this combination of human rights and love would be the means to the ends of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all of humankind.
Each January when we commemorate his birth and his life, we also recall the tragic circumstances of his death. He was shot dead. Tragically, gun violence has not subsided since April, 1968, and the nation now struggles to move forward after another mass shooting. However, the one thing that no shooter can shoot dead is the American dream. It is a dream that King lived and died for, and it is a dream that President Obama spoke about during his remarks at a memorial service for the dead and the wounded in Tucson, Arizona.
Before King gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington in 1963, he gave a commencement address to the graduating class of Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in June of 1961 called "The American Dream." In that speech, King spoke of America as a utopian ideal, a dream. He said: "America is essentially a dream, a dream as yet unfulfilled. It is a dream of a land where men of all races, of all nationalities and of all creeds can live together as brothers." He went on to quote that portion of the Declaration of Independence that speaks of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He spoke of the universality of the American dream since it spoke of the equality of all humanity. He spoke of the aspect of the Declaration that grounds human rights in the eternal will of God. He said: "The American dream reminds us that every man is heir to the legacy of worthiness."
King went on to speak about what we could do to make the American dream a reality: develop a global perspective; make moral and spiritual progress that stays abreast with science and technology; abandon the idea of racial superiority; continually engage in creative protest.
He knew that human progress does not come automatically. "It comes through the tireless effort and the persistent work of dedicated individuals." He spoke of the need for righteous public policy that would "break down the unjust systems we find in our society." Speaking of men and women dedicated to social justice, he said: "We need not sink into the quicksands of hatred. Standing on the high ground of noninjury, love and soul force, they can turn this nation upside down and right side up."
King understood that love is expansive. It seeks to embrace every person and everything. Such ought to be the case with our public policy, that the blessings of liberty and justice should expand to more Americans. President Obama spoke of this in his remarks in Tucson. He said: " ... our task working together is to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American Dream to future generations."
Our circle of concern these days ought to include the mentally ill, people who do not have health care, undocumented workers and their families, the people of south Sudan, and any country facing poverty and war. The work of making the American dream a reality is now our work to do.
Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar who publishes lectures and essays at JustPeaceTheory.com. She received her Ph.D. in religion and society from Temple University and taught Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary and Andover Newton Theological School.