The idea of elemental justice meted out to every man is the ideal we should keep ever before us. It will be many a long day before we attain it, and unless we show not only devotion to it, but also wisdom and self-restraint in the exhibition of that devotion, we shall defer the time for its realization still further.Theodore Roosevelt, Speech to Republican Club of New York City, February, 1905.
America remains unique among nations because its nationhood is defined not by ethnicity, but by its values. There is, and never should be, such a thing as an ethnic American. It began with the Declaration of Independence, which proclaimed the ideal of a new democratic society with equality of opportunity for all. At the same time, the founders realized that achieving this dream would be a daunting task and also knew the toleration of slavery would make it harder. Even the Declaration’s author Thomas Jefferson said “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just”. Nevertheless, it seemed a necessary evil to the achievement of independence. In the end, the cost of this evil was borne not only by African-Americans, but eventually by the entire nation in the form of a bloody civil war.
Today we celebrate the life of an American who fought to more fully realize the founder’s ideals. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I have a Dream Speech is one of the most heartfelt and powerful expressions of the same dream expressed by the founders and by TR in the above quotation Dr. King’s advocacy of non-violent civil disobedience as the method for achieving it proved to be precisely the kind of effective wisdom and restraint that could not be resisted. In his tireless pursuit of the American Dream for all Americans, he showed himself to be an American nationalist in the tradition of Jefferson and Roosevelt. Our observance of his birthday should be both a call to remember their ideals and the work yet to be done to fully achieve them.