When Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech, he did something extraordinary for a speaker mounting a challenge to the existing order: he positioned those in his movement not as outsiders and dissidents, but rather as inheritors, indeed as the true inheritors, of the American Constitutional tradition.
He laid hold of the "mystic cords of memory" that connect each generation of Americans. King—who had disobeyed the ordinances of many localities, defied the laws of many states, and written from the cell of a city jail—enveloped his cause and his message in the mantle of mainstream Americanism.
He began the heart of his speech this way: "Five score years ago, a great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand signed the Emancipation Proclamation." With these words, King associated his message with words chiseled into stone on that very spot, words with which Abraham Lincoln had done at Gettysburg precisely what King was setting out to do: to reimagine America.
With 265 words at Gettysburg, as author and historian Gary Wills noted, Lincoln reinvented America. By transporting his listeners back four score and seven years to the Declaration of Independence in the summer of 1776, Lincoln claimed the Declaration's commitment to equality as the true founding covenant. Lincoln understood that the Constitution was complicit with the sin of slavery, but he also understood that "Hypocrisy may commit itself beyond easy retraction," to use Constitutional law expert Charles L. Black's powerful phrase.
King quite deliberately followed Lincoln's example, choosing to read the history of America in its most favorable light, then laying claim to those best, deepest instincts of the American founding and using them for his own purposes:
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Via Chuck Sherwood, Senior Associate, TeleDimensions, Inc