Why Dr. Martin Luther King Considered the Declaration of Independence a Great Moral Event

by Dr. Cornel West

The last major resource for Dr. Martin Luther King’s thought was American civil religion — that complex web of religious ideals of deliverance and salvation and political ideals of freedom, democracy, and equality that constitute the evolving collective self-definition of America. This first new nation — born liberal, born modern, born bourgeois — gave birth to a grand social experiment unprecedented in human history. Its Declaration of Independence constituted, for King, a great moral event and document. 

King’s appropriation and interpretation of American civil religion led him creatively to extend the tradition of American jeremiads — a tradition of public exhortation that joins social criticisms of America to moral renewal and calls America back to its founding ideals of democracy, freedom, and equality. King was convinced that despite the racism of the Founding Fathers, the ideals of America were sufficient if only they were taken seriously in practice.

King did not support and affirm the bland American dream of comfortable living and material prosperity. Rather, he put forward his own dream — grounded and refined in the black church experience, supplemented by liberal Christianity, and implemented by Gandhian methods of nonviolent resistance — rooted in the American ideals of democracy, freedom, and equality. 

King’s thought remains a challenge to us principally in that he accented the anticolonialist, anti-imperialist, and antiracist consequences of taking seriously the American ideals of democracy, freedom, and equality. He never forgot that America was born out of revolutionary revolt and subversive rebellion against British colonialism and imperialism and that while much of white America viewed the country as the promised land, black slaves saw it as Egypt.  

Through his prophetic Christian lens, King saw just how far America had swerved away from its own revolutionary past.

King’s universal and egalitarian religious and moral commitments, as well as his historical consciousness, led him to internationalize the American ideals of democracy, freedom, and equality and thereby not only measure domestic policies but but also U.S. foreign policy by these ideals. And he found both sets of policies wanting. He knew some progress had been made, yet so much more progress was needed, and even present gains could be reversed.

The unique status and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is that, as a black Baptist minister, he embodies the best of American Christianity….What matter of man was he, this child and product of the black church open enough to learn from others and rooted enough in is own tradition to grow, who now belongs to the nation and the world — a nation and world still ’not able to bear his words’ even as they try to honor him.