Editor's note: The Philadelphia Inquirer also published this article.
This week, Americans will pay tribute to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.
with school assemblies, community programs and — to the delight of students and
adults alike — a national holiday. Yet few if any Americans, at this crucial
time in our nation’s history, will directly connect King’s heroism and
accomplishments to his faith in — and use of — our primary tools of democracy,
the five freedoms of the First Amendment.
This is a missed opportunity. More so than any other part of our
Constitution, our laws or our civic principles as a nation, the freedoms of the
First Amendment — religion, speech, press, assembly and petition — embody what
it means to be an American. Properly understood and applied, they allow us to
expand the promise of freedom more fairly and fully to succeeding generations of
Americans, and forge unity in the interest of our diversity, instead of at the
expense of it.
Yet most of us demonstrate an overdeveloped sense of rights and an
underdeveloped sense of responsibilities. In fact, based on the First Amendment
Center’s 2004 State of
the First Amendment survey, only 1% of us know that the right to petition
for a redress of grievances is a privilege guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Roughly four in 10 Americans cannot name a single freedom. And many of us
believe the First Amendment exists solely to protect our right to say whatever
Every January, the holiday honoring King provides an opportunity to remember
both what the First Amendment demands of us as citizens, and also what is
possible when we exercise those rights responsibly in the cause of justice and
freedom for all.
Consider, for example, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the
iconic 1963 rally that introduced King’s “I Have a Dream” speech to white
America — he had delivered those lines in front of black audiences many times
before — and produced the most poignant petition for redress of grievances in
our nation’s history. Nearly every American is familiar with King’s speech that
day. Many of us were asked to memorize it as students. But how many of us were
also taught about that day — and the movement — in the specific context of our
democratic principles as a nation?
Recall that the march occurred as Congress was wrestling with whether or not
to pass President Kennedy’s civil rights program. Recall that young people
across the country were being jailed for peacefully assembling to protest the
South’s policies of institutional racism. And recall that the quality of our
national conversation was still so rudimentary that in the days and weeks before
the march, white journalists peppered black commentators with what today seems
like a shockingly naïve question — “What is it that Negroes really
King and the other leaders of the movement understood that the best way to
counter such naïveté and willful ignorance was by utilizing each of the First
Amendment’s five freedoms to appeal to the nation’s conscience. So on that
historic day, Aug. 28, they presented a program that celebrated the American
belief in religious liberty, beginning with an invocation from the Archbishop of
Washington and featuring remarks from the president of the American Jewish
Congress; they relied on the press to broadcast images of the
massive assembly — ABC and NBC even broke away from their regularly
scheduled afternoon soap operas to join CBS and broadcast King’s speech in its
entirety; and they petitioned for change with emotional appeals to, in the words
of Abraham Lincoln, “the better angels of our nature.”
Nearly a decade of protest and activism reached its symbolic pinnacle when
hundreds of thousands of Americans of all colors gathered in the shadow of
Lincoln, in the centennial year of the Emancipation Proclamation, to petition
the Congress to establish 1963, in the words of organizer Roy Wilkins, “as the
year racial discrimination was ended.”
The rest is history, yet both the glory of that day and its unfulfilled
promise provide powerful mandates for parents and teachers. As King said later,
the night before he was struck down at the age of 39, the future of democracy is
always only as secure as the commitment of its youngest citizens. “In 1960,” he
preached, “when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters
… I knew that as they were sitting in, they were really standing up for the best
in the American dream, and taking the whole nation back to those great wells of
democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of
Independence and the Constitution.”
As much or more than anyone in recent American history, King had a profound
understanding of the principles found in this nation’s “great wells of
democracy.” And at the heart of his work was an appeal to all Americans to live
up to our nation’s guiding principles and ideals.
Let’s remember that this holiday.
Sam Chaltain is co-director of the First Amendment Schools project, a
national reform initiative co-sponsored by the Association for Supervision and
Curriculum Development (ASCD) and the First Amendment Center. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org