Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Profound orator, reverend, scholar, and civil rights advocate amongst many other things utilized American historical staple doctrines and documents built to uphold the nation as identifiers to decimate and combat injustices running desolate across the nation. In his “I have a Dream” speech of August 28, 1963 Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. set to take an analytical and rational approach to the current status of the Negro in America and decipher why the American legal, governmental, and political systems have failed to honor the unalienable rights guaranteed to all citizens of America.
After President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1963 for the benefit of the war between the confederate and union army the document established a problematic nature due to the fact that it did not state the conditions of the “free” Negro post-war. The issue of Negro citizenship and Negro social and political power was not one of the primary concerns of the Emancipation Proclamation for it only served to recruit Negroes to fight the ongoing Civil war between the Union and Confederate States. As one of the beginning issues of concern worth addressing in African-American legal history Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. saw fit to address the nature of documents such as the Emancipation Proclamation, as well as, the Declaration of Independence and their relation to African-Americans and the law because the law governed the lands. Due to the message and importance of these documents as legal binding agreements for all people throughout America it was important for Dr. King to outline that the very laws of these documents were not honored by the American people in regards to the African-American Negro. The entitlement of the laws of nature or those inalienable rights that are supposedly guaranteed to all men were not guaranteed to the Negro in America, and the social and political life of the American Negro was unacknowledged during this time period. Dr. Kings “I Have A Dream” oration provides an in-depth response and analyses of these documents and how the credibility of them and their ability to shelter, protect, and advance people of color failed these people who required its legal protection the most.
In the beginning of his speech Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. states,
“Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.”
Dr. King addresses the slave trade, which physical, mentally, and emotionally chained African-Americans from obtaining a proper place in society due to their position of being held as slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation of 1963 was supposed to liberate African-Americans and although it did physically the implications of equality would not surface until the Civil War era of 1861-1865 during the reconstruction amendments, and even after these amendments were created the laws of Jim Crow left the African-American unequal with the rest of society until the modern civil rights era of 1954-1968. African-Americans were reduced to the status of second-class citizens after the Emancipation Proclamation proving that technically they were citizens, but they lacked operational rights. This theory of rights versus the operational reality of rights proved that African-Americans were not allowed full citizenship rights in America. Dr. King in his oration at the Washington Monument stated, “There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.” The denial of full citizenship was crippling to the African-American community from a legal, political, and social perspective due to the fact that the law can either prohibit or exercise one’s rights. Nevertheless, without the aid of the law social and political movements cannot gain any type of structure or mobility. So the States had the ability to nullify or invalidate any federal law passed down. Dr. King identifies this major point of tension and contradiction not only with the law, but also with the foundations of law (i.e. The Declaration of Independence ; The Emancipation Proclamation) and it’s interaction with Black citizenship to prove its large inequality to African-Americans.
Continuing into his oration Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. begins addressing other points of legal tension and contradiction on behalf of African-Americans. For instance he states, “We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and the Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.” Italics, Bold, & Underline mine. In the 15th & 19th amendments (1870) according to the constitution of the United States Black men and women were emancipated and granted their rights to vote. However, it was common practice for Southern voting polls to utilize devious methods such as harassment and physical violence to prevent African-Americans from reaching the voting polls. The Voters Rights Act, which was signed into law on August 6, 1965, was politically charged and motivated to overcome the many barriers on state and local levels that prevented African-Americans from voting. From a legislative perspective the many consequences of not being able to vote for African-Americans were socially equivalent to the inability to access basic fundamental human rights because in America the largest political power exists in the voting polls. In reference the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation Dr. King assured the crowd that America failed to grant African-Americans the rights they were ensured by these legal binding documents he noted another point of tension and contradiction existing within these documents by stating:
When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence (Yeah), they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed to the “Unalienable Rights of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
The Constitution of the United States was created to ensure justice and domestic tranquility yet African-Americans were not recipients of this justice and tranquility. Dr. King then stated, “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.” This statement asserts the fact that African-Americans were experiencing a major contradiction in the history of United States legal legislation. When Dr. King stated, “One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later (My Lord)applause, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land” he was referring to all of these social deviations from white society that exiled African-Americans from maintaining proper social equality.
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