When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke on the National Mall 50 years ago today, he called the assembled crowd "the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation." America "guaranteed the 'unalienable Rights' of 'Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,'" he said, but had not delivered on the guarantee.
King was right. Thomas Jefferson promised this nation an expanse of freedom that was beyond his power to deliver. As he wrote to John Adams as both former Presidents observed the unfolding debate over the expansion of slavery, it would be up to future generations of Americans to fulfill that promise. In 1963, King came to Washington to "cash this check," as he put it.
King's success was phenomenal. Black Americans (and therefore, all Americans) have never been as free from state-sponsored oppression as they are today. And yet the struggle for full freedom continues. Inner-city children are forced to attend bad schools. Politicians lure the poor to become dependent upon politicians for their basic needs. High taxes and overly restrictive business regulations deter the entrepreneurship that leads to economic independence.
Jefferson promised us freedom, but he did not guarantee it. King's lesson is that if we desire the liberty that is our birthright, we must secure it for ourselves. It is one of the great lessons of American history. May we never forget it.