Martin Luther King Jr. and America's 'Promissory Note'

Reverend King had a penchant for weaving the language of Biblical prophets into his speech and writing.

By Lewis Waha

Each January, we honor Martin Luther King, Jr. for his leadership in combating racial segregation and securing civil rights for African Americans. However, critics lately have charged that King’s legacy has been “whitewashed,” or remembered selectively. A 2019 Guardian editorial laments that Americans have “Disneyfied” the reformer, saying that we recall his earlier, comforting successes while overlooking his later frustrations and political radicalism. Psychologizing the critique, a 2020 NBC News opinion piece decries that King’s memory is abused for the purpose of cultivating “complacency” and a sense of “absolution.”

As bracing as these correctives seem, they miss the mark. It’s true that King’s desire that black Americans escape disparate poverty and violence remains frustrated. But it would be a mistake to suppose that this unfinished work necessitates anticapitalism, antimilitarism, or the psychologizing antiracism of the whitewash narrative. Rather than being a self-serving power move, sober remembrance of King’s reliance on Christian ethics and the American Founders recovers a radicality befitting King’s ultimate vision of “the Beloved Community.”

Reverend King had a penchant for weaving the language of Biblical prophets into his speech and writing. Two of his most celebrated messages use strikingly similar metaphors to express that God provided for America’s moral improvement by means of the nation’s founding.

In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King hailed “those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.” To appreciate the meaning of this remark, consider that water wells, along with flowing streams and runoff-catching cisterns, were the water sources of ancient Israel. In prophetic language, each source represents varying degrees of spiritual sustenance. Flowing streams and springs — also translated as “living water” — are the best supply and refer exclusively to God himself. This is the same living water that Jesus, as recorded in John’s gospel, offered to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. Backing a radical claim, Jesus showed himself to be greater than the Samaritans’ “founding father,” Jacob.

It’s no small thing then for a black Baptist preacher to write that America’s Founders furnished great wells of democracy. Although laid down by mere mortals, America’s founding documents, “dug deep,” are moral resources blessing a people for generations.

King echoed his confidence in America’s founding when he spoke of the “bank of justice” and “great vaults of opportunity.” In his “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963, he asserted that the Founders had signed “a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.” Of course, lament was built into his message: for African Americans, that note, like a bounced check, came back marked “insufficient funds.” Yet he did not stop at the point of grievance. He continued, “we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.”

By leading his listeners in these twin refusals, King invited them to deliberately exercise their will, not based on blind faith but on their knowledge of the promissory note. That note itself results from another act of will, but not one that hangs in midair. The Declaration of Independence starts off affirming the rights of a people by light of “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” and concludes by promising that “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” By his words, King blazed a radical return to the Founders’ promise, underwritten by the self-evident truths of natural law.

Like a well or a vault, lives, fortunes, and sacred honor aren’t easily exhausted — at least not as long as those who made the pledge remain willing to keep it. Because that pledge is mutual, far reaching, and between naturally equal partners, it also requires something from those who imagine themselves to be prophetically speaking truth to power. None in the enterprise get to stand outside of it as if they could comprehensively judge another part of it.

If we insist on vindicating a “radical revolution” that departs from rather than reaffirms our inheritance as Americans, then we fail to uphold our pledge to our fellow co-inheritors. The deeper and more consonant radicality by which to honor King is not one that writes off others who share in the American project, but one that refuses to give up on them.

Lewis Waha holds an M.A. in Christian Apologetics from Biola University and is a freelance writer focusing on faith in the public square.

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