Without slavery, and without the personal and national traumas caused by this institution, American history would not be what it is. Without it, it is unlikely that there would have been the moral imperative for a civil rights movement. That movement’s most immediate beneficiaries were the millions of African Americans caught in the limbo of second-class citizenry, but the movement holds larger lessons for anyone interested in freedom and the deeper questions about bigotry and intolerance, political representation and an always elusive equality. Americans have been fascinated and repulsed for well over a century by this facet of their history. They are at times contemplative and angry about the horrific episodes of the past, and conflicted about their pride for an upstart republic that declared the unalienable rights of men to the world, and then embarrassed themselves by denying those very same rights to the men and women who made their worlds possible.
Onto this packed stage strides an improbable and imperfect man who became the face of a centuries-long struggle. Between 1519 and 1867, nearly 6.5% of the slaves removed from Africa, or 600,000 people, were brought to British North America. This population would multiply to some four million slaves. The institution, legally and culturally, was firmly entrenched by 1793 when the Fugitive Slave Act was passed. It was not until 1807 that an act prohibited the importation of slaves, and not until 1833 that the American Anti-Slavery Society was founded by William Lloyd Garrison and led by Frederick Douglas. By 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe had published the abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and she would later pen the influential pamphlet What is Slavery? Slavery is Despotism. In 1857, the dam broke with Taney’s decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford, and then followed the horrors of the American Civil War and the tumult of Reconstruction. Out of all of this we were given the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Compromise speech, Klan meetings, public lynching, and race riots; a legal defense of segregation in the 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, Eisenhower’s mobilization of the National Guard to ensure integration in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 following the Brown v. Board of Education decision having ruled segregation unconstitutional in 1954.
Set against this backdrop, Martin Luther King, Jr. enters the national consciousness, most notably with his 1963 I Have a Dream speech at the Lincoln Memorial. What we recognize today is not simply the man, but the long train of abuses that he stood against. It is an inspiring story about a man who found his moment at the apex of the civil rights movement, and who would be cut down in 1968 by the same intolerance that made that movement necessary.
There is a great irony in honoring King and the inroads he made by removing students from the classroom given his passion for education as a guarantor of freedom. That he would be honored by having children, including those who were once denied an education, stay home blithely ignorant not only of him, but of history entirely is peculiar indeed. Interestingly, King’s ideas about what an education should be do not look radically different from Ridgeview’s. In a 1947 essay, King wrote that “the function of education…is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.” How many public schools today have either the courage or the confidence to address the moral development of their pupils? Rather than parroting bland platitudes to an overwhelmingly disaffected and apathetic audience, they simply send the students home. Ridgeview, after years of honoring King by teaching students about him and being accused of racism for remaining in school on this day, has bowed to the conventions of our time, and now teach our students about him in advance of the day.
What King dreamed of is essentially the American dream, and one that Ridgeview wholeheartedly endorses, which is that we will not be judged by the color of our skin, “but by the content of [our] character,” as King put it in his 1963 speech. And, the same idealism and hopefulness for our fellow man and nation that Ridgeview professes is embodied in King’s speech when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. “I refuse to accept that the “isness” of man’s present nature make him morally incapable of reaching up for the “oughtness” that forever confronts him.” In other words, the normative can triumph over the descriptive. There can hardly be any more classical an ambition.
There has been a great deal written about King’s moral failings to include everything from plagiarism to adultery to possessing communist sympathies, but as the French theologian A.G. Sertillanges wrote, “There is nothing new but what is forgotten. The majority of writers only edit and publish other writers’ thoughts.” King never denied being a sinner; he acknowledged it quite openly within the context of his Christian faith, and he became a lens through which he was able to focus, intensify, and articulate the ideas that had been simmering for centuries until he could in a booming, steady, eloquent voice, give expression to the injustices that had been done and the future that could be. Today, in no small part because of King, we have cause to honor truth in history, to contemplate a nation’s painful self-examination and its efforts to reconcile itself with the past in order that future generations may learn from the lessons of their forbearers.
As we wish on the one hand for a color-blind society, and on the other, paradoxically inculcate our youth in a society of affirmative action, compelling governmental interests, hate crimes, and hate speech, it behooves us to reflect on whether it has been a mistake to believe that we will change hearts through the coerciveness of laws rather than through the persuasiveness of speech. Here is King’s dream: a less callous and more thoughtful world in which each shall be judged by who and not by what he is. It is, moreover, one in which hearts are moved not by the vulgarity of political rancor, but by a fraternal love and a sense of common humanity.