Did MLK Jr. dream of equal opportunity or equal results?

Forty-eight years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his unforgettably compelling “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Fittingly, his own memorial, newly finished and dynamic in design, was to have been dedicated today. Hurricane Irene interrupted that plan, but today still seems an appropriate day to honor the memory and explore the legacy of a towering leader of the Civil Rights movement, a man who stood as a symbol of peace and hope for so many.

The Heritage Foundation’s David Azerrad (a friend and former colleague!) explains why the question of how we remember MLK, Jr., is by no means an arbitrary one:

Martin Luther King is rightly remembered for his dream, first articulated on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 48 years ago this Sunday, that the principles embodied in “the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence” would one day be vindicated and applied to all men, regardless of “the color of their skin.” Fewer remember that in the ensuing years before his untimely death in 1968, King gradually abandoned the dream of equal rights and sought instead “the realization of equality” through government redistribution of wealth.

How fitting, then, that the new Martin Luther King Memorial, unveiled Monday on the National Mall in Washington, DC, should stand between the Lincoln and FDR memorials—the former a tribute to the greatest champion of the Founders’ vision of equality, the latter a monument to the President who redefined rights and expanded the reach of government like no one else.

The location of the MLK Memorial testifies to the two incompatible conceptions of equality and rights that King, at different times, defended. In commemorating his legacy however, King’s earlier words and accomplishments should take precedence. …

King’s true legacy lies in his struggle for civil rights and in his defense of the American ideal of self-improvement through work. This is why we speak of “Martin Luther King’s Conservative Legacy,” of  “The Conservative Virtues of Dr. Martin Luther King” and of “King’s Conservative Mind.”

As Azerrad rightly points out, King’s two conceptions of equality and rights — one rooted in the desire for the risky freedom of self-government, one rooted in the desire for the unearned security of an entitlement system — are incompatible. As one expands, the other contracts. The battle between those two conceptions rages today — and who takes what side has nothing to do with race or creed. To choose the former is to express the desire to “let freedom ring” from every mountainside of America — that desire so eloquently, so unremittingly, so achingly expressed in that speech Dr. King delivered so many years ago today.

Will we be a free people, willing to forsake the treats falsely promised us by politicians? Will we be a free people, willing to work hard to live content on the fruits of our labors? Will we be a free people, respectful of the rights and personhood of others, generous to a fault with those in need, knowing the time will come when we ourselves will need something of others?

For in the end, this great experiment of self-government that has characterized our country from the Constitutional Convention of 1787 (and even before that!) depends for its success on the willingness of each of us, quite simply, to govern ourselves. King asked for “dignity and discipline” from his listeners — and it’s what we need a little more of today, too. The discipline he spoke of was self-discipline — and it’s what will free us from the prison of looking to the government for every last little solution.

When this happens, we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last!

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