Dream and Dilemma

Remarks at the service for Martin Luther King Jr. Day - January 21, 2013

 

The January morning, about ten years ago, was intensely bright and painfully cold in the Nation's Capital. It was Martin Luther King Day. The National Archives brought from its vault for brief public display a government document written in flowing longhand. My family and I, for the only time in our lives, set our eyes upon the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by Abraham Lincoln. As we begin a new semester, we take note that this astonishing state paper is 150 years old. No national anniversary can possibly be more significant to the United States or to the occasion that gathers us this afternoon.

For a few minutes, I wish to connect several points of this history with a few ideas about Martin Luther King. When you see the iconic images of Dr. King speaking from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, the centennial year of the Emancipation Proclamation, you should not miss that the declaration of a dream rests upon the governing prose of a proclamation. The two events are inextricably paired.

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The signing of the Emancipation Proclamation marked a significant turning-point in the American Civil War and the public consciousness of the war's ultimate purpose. The argument for prosecuting the war moved from conflicting theories of government to the moral cause of human freedom. But I hasten to caution against over-interpretation, because what the Emancipation Proclamation allowed was tightly restricted by Lincoln's limited powers, as he said, under auspices of "military necessity."

Nevertheless, even with the mixed success of the Union Army at Antietam and Grant's progress in the Vicksburg Campaign, the outcome of the war was not at all certain. The Emancipation Proclamation was not by any means a declaration of victory or the codification of better law. It was only the forerunner of reform; it was decidedly not a change in legal rights and protection. Nothing was inevitable, except the historian's supposition that had the Confederacy reversed its fortunes and somehow won the war, slavery would have continued for a very long time.

The only immediate and tangible result of the proclamation was the enlistment of more than 185,000 slaves and free blacks in the Union army. And that response, in combination with the proclamation itself, set the stage for the passing of the 13th Amendment, the subject of Stephen Spielberg's acclaimed film Lincoln.

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The historian Eric Foner has reminded us recently that "the hallmark of Lincoln's greatness was his combination of bedrock principle with open-mindedness and capacity for growth." (NYT, 12/31/12) In our community of learning today, that is a reasonable definition and goal of a liberal arts education, a good text to begin the new semester. But now I want to turn briefly to the history of Martin Luther King Day because it is tied intimately to the history of celebrating Lincoln's strong principles, capacity to learn deeply, and desire to possess new thoughts.

John Hope Franklin died a few years ago having lived into his 90s and witnessing the inauguration of the first African-American president. He was a hero to several generations of scholars and a special inspiration to me. He and my father were friends as fellow readers at the Library of Congress in the 1940s and '50s. Before there was a national holiday honoring the life of Martin Luther King, there was for about a hundred years in many African-American communities a celebration on New Year's Day of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Dr. Franklin recalled the occasions included a brass band, an African-American fire company, and a short parade to a courthouse, a school, or a church. The assembly would hear a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, followed by an oration by a prominent individual. He remembered that "the speeches varied in character and purpose. Some of them urged African Americans to insist upon equal rights; some of them urged frugality and greater attention to morals; while still others urged their listeners to harbor no ill will toward their white brethren." (Speech at National Archives, 1/4/93)

These moments gave them all the strength to go on, especially the strength to love. And yet, for many people in today's equivalent remembrance of freedom's history, the feelings are mixed, stretched between painful reflections and unrealized hopes. There is a sense of tragedy to a life taken so soon and so violently by a bullet; there is the memory of brutality in a struggle for baseline dignity; there is a sense that the hard-won concessions for justice are not yet fully extended, because the transformational momentum of a long-ago era has vanished, perhaps waiting to be renewed, some day.

I travel America at this stage of my life more than I ever have before, owing to my work at St. Lawrence. In all the cities I visit, there is typically a Martin Luther King Boulevard. These streets are never a gleaming lane of shining alabaster buildings and brass-rail restaurants serving the best wine. Rather, the neighborhoods along these MLK Boulevards usually make a statement of impoverishment and despair, of being incomplete in the work of emancipation.

We are perhaps between disappointment and hope in measuring our history of the last 150 years. When I taught at Howard University, I often went between two worlds, never more poignant than on Martin Luther King Day: working in a historically black institution while living in a predominantly white neighborhood. Some people would argue that too little has changed, and that what was achieved remains fragile. Others would say the accounts are in balance, the debts are paid up, action has been affirmative, so just move on. For my own place in that dichotomy, I have come to believe that the American dream is also the American dilemma.

As Lincoln wrote and as King knew, there is no moral peace until there is moral justice. Laws can express justice, but only hearts can do what is right. And this dilemma leaves us feeling bound by old frustrations traceable to the fetters of slavery. And meanwhile, in the face of our deep worries, that full justice is too slow and peace is but a dream, each one of us has sufficient freedom to do something about the dilemma on the smallest scale of one human being.

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I sometimes worry that you who are in the midst of your student days are encouraged to focus too much and too soon on career goals without gaining sufficient advantage of intellectual emancipation. And without that order of deep learning, you are at risk of tipping to the side of the American dilemma that is frivolous or a state of indifference. So, you may wonder, from what do you need emancipation while you live on this campus? 

We need to be emancipated from ignorance. It is fundamental to learning that we are never a complete student; an academic degree is only a passport, not a possession. Put differently, you will spend the rest of your lives constantly rearranging the furniture of your minds, adding to the inventory, moving the chairs, or the changing décor. And yet, in all humbleness, you will be wiser if you believe that you never can know enough. As you enter the second term, learn something new.

We need to be emancipated from ugliness. You have choices about what you can experience in music, movies, and reading. You have options in the vocabulary of your conversations. We want you to stretch, increase, and expand your palette; develop standards of pleasure. And yet, in this world, more than ever, the harsh crudities, ample vulgarities, and offensive obscenities build around us, confusing us with ideas of what is the norm. This semester, make sure you take note of something beautiful.

We need to be emancipated from fear. St. Augustine used to say there is really only one moral imperative, "love and do what you like." Well, it takes a strong, confident person to do that. Right now, the world is increasingly defined by the polemics of meanness. Perhaps political adversaries should just go out for beers, but for many people in public life today, vitriol is the refreshment of choice - they actually hate their opponents. The opposite of love is not hate, it is, as Dr. King often preached, fear. We need to ask ourselves about the conditions of our own fear. Learning to love is the desire to conquer fear. And so, as we reenter the life of our campus this January, let us resolve to do something brave. *** Lyndon Johnson spoke at Gettysburg on the 100th anniversary of the famous decisive battle. He was then Vice President, not yet the architect of the Civil Rights Act. There he said, "Until justice is blind, until education is unaware of race, until opportunity is unconcerned with the color of [persons'] skins, emancipation will be a proclamation but not a fact." (as quoted by JHF)

For our own small part in converting proclamation into fact, learn something new, note something beautiful, and do something brave. We enjoy wondrous freedom in this new day. And yet, we are never entirely emancipated so long as we require strength to face an old dilemma...and to embrace an abiding dream.