In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was the promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’ It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But 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. –Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., speech at the March on Washington
This year, as our nation celebrates the Fourth of July, crowds in Washington, D.C. will once again gather on the National Mall and watch fireworks launched from the sides of the Lincoln Memorial’s Reflecting Pool. 2022 marks the centennial of the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial itself, and the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom has been just one of the events held in the Lincoln Memorial’s shadow that reminded us of the nation’s founding promises the Lincoln Memorial was meant to reaffirm—and the work left to be done to live up to them.
When the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated in May 1922, Tuskegee Institute President Robert Russa Moton was the only Black American invited to speak to the segregated audience. Former President William Howard Taft, by then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was serving as president of the Lincoln Memorial Commission and asked to review an advance copy of Dr. Moton’s speech. He requested that about 500 words criticizing the federal government for its failure to protect African Americans be taken out; as he put it, “suggest that in making the cut you give more unity and symmetry by emphasizing tribute and lessening appeal. I am sure you wish to avoid any insinuation of attempt to make the occasion one for propaganda.” That kind of “suggestion” may still sound familiar today. Dr. Moton did make cuts, but opened with the metaphor of the two ships that symbolized America’s founding: the Mayflower, which arrived in 1620 bearing “the pioneers of freedom,” and the slave ship that arrived at Jamestown in 1619, bearing “the pioneers of bondage.”
Dr. Moton noted those two forces had been destined for conflict from the beginning. He celebrated the Civil War as a turning point, but said the work continued: “There has been started on these shores the great experiment of the ages—an experiment in human relationships, where men and women of every nation, of every race and creed, are thrown together. Here we are engaged, consciously or unconsciously, in the great problems of determining how different races can not only live together in peace but cooperate in working out a higher and better civilization than has yet been achieved.”
Dr. Moton continued: “I like to think that here to-day, while we dedicate this symbol of our gratitude, that the Nation is dedicated anew by its own determined will to fulfill to the last letter the task imposed upon it by the martyred dead, that here it firmly resolves that the humblest citizen, of whatever color or creed, shall enjoy that equal opportunity and unhampered freedom for which the immortal Lincoln gave the last full measure of devotion . . . With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, I somehow believe that all of us, black and white, both North and South, are going to strive on to finish the work which he so nobly began to make America an example for the world of equal justice and equal opportunity for all who strive and are willing to serve under the flag that makes men free.”
That work would not be finished when Dr. King spoke from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 41 years later, and it is not finished yet. But the chance for all of us to come together to make America the shining beacon it has always promised to be is still here today. Every Fourth of July is another opportunity to rededicate our nation to making its founding principles real for all.