I do not mean hope in the everyday sense of yearning for something better. I mean hope in the sense of belief that we can overcome our lesser instincts and create a more enlightened society. I mean hope in the sense of belief we can be governed by true conscience or, as Lincoln put it, by “our better angels." I mean hope in the sense of belief we can realize a vision that matches with our highest ideals.
Our nation was founded on this kind of hope. As the first country in the world founded on the basis of principles—liberty and equality—rather than any particular ethnic or religious heritage, America was envisioned as an experiment in building a society upon ideals.
We have so often faltered. Yet—through his writing, speeches, and organizing—MLK used hope as a force to galvanize us toward realizing America's central principles.
Let's not forget that he also, I believe rightly, fought to expand the set of core principles to which this nation is committed. Namely, he championed the principle of nonviolence and the notion of promoting the intrinsic worth of every living soul.
This is why he took controversial stands even beyond those we commonly celebrate today.
This is why he opposed the Vietnam War and high levels of military spending generally, which, he said, could not "be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love."
This is why he spoke out against the exploitation of the developing world. He decried the world's wealthiest investing "huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries."
This is why he took a stand for domestic economic justice. In stark contrast to what we hear today about the economy's "winners and losers," he deplored the idea that businesses should exploit workers by failing to pay a living wage or laying off longtime workers to squeeze out extra profits for owners. "I never intend to adjust myself," he declared in Michigan in 1963, "to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few.".
Indeed, the march at which the Reverend delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In addition to calling for desegregation and anti-discrimination laws, he came to Washington to argue for large-scale federal works programs to train and place unemployed workers. This, he believed, was integral to building dignity.
I mention this not to insinuate that Dr. King would support any one particular policy today. Rather, I mention it to clarify that his vision and his passion went beyond political rights.
If we are to solve this nation's big problems today, we must restore our imagination of what a better, more equitable world might look like. We must think about the ways that economic politics have moral dimensions. We must think of what it will take to restore people's livelihoods and dignity amidst the longest, deepest global recession in a generation.
As I think of the new monument opening on our national mall, I know one thing: restoring our nation's promise will take a great deal of hope.