If I were given the difficult task of providing a distillation of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s project into a single sentence utilizing his myriad speeches, I would select words from his last speech on April 3, 1968:

“All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper.’”

King’s simple request, some 52 years ago, remains beyond the comprehension of many Americans living in the 21st century. We understand the words, but do we appreciate its meaning and purpose? Though King’s words were specifically focused on America’s First Amendment protection, they may also serve as a credo in larger a context.

Are we asking too much of ourselves to do what was committed to paper? What, or better yet, who is preventing us from reaching the lofty heights we’ve set for ourselves?

I suppose, with the use of our index finger, we could locate the culprit. But this is a collective dilemma. We are the centurions by birth or naturalized citizenship entrusted to safeguard American democracy.

With orthodoxy in tow, warring factions compete as if America’s survival depends solely on their understanding of the truth. As a result, we’ve become a binary culture, allergic to nuance and circumspection. Does nuance have a role in the public conversation or will we continue to be hamstrung by anti-intellectual certainty?

The fault lines of division are represented by stark black and white dividers that never bleed into any shade of gray. Without realizing it, the conveniences of 21st century technology mask that in many respects we’re having pre-Enlightenment conversations.

The Enlightenment (also known as the Age of Reason) was a philosophical movement between the 17th and 19th centuries, largely in Europe, dominated by a world of ideas. It was where questions became more important than answers, and nuance took its rightful place in the intellectual pantheon.

America was founded on Enlightenment thinking. Thomas Paine, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin adopted Enlightenment philosophy about scientific rationality and religious tolerance, experimenting with whether government of the people, by the people, and for the people could long endure.

The natural rights of humans were antithetical to authoritarian doctrine that sought to adjudicate rights that were not theirs to bestow. This was the basis of America’s origin.

But as Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the mid-19th century classic, Democracy in America, would America’s “strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts,” be its undoing today?

Are not those critiques still undergirding the present debate that keeps America stagnant on the issue of climate change? How many political leaders have underplayed the impact of COVID-19? And race remains the unresolved issue in the American narrative.

The call for America to be true to what it said on paper is not a demand for a particular orthodoxy to reign supreme. It is, however, a choice between regressive and progressive thinking.

Progressive thinking is not the exclusive domain of any political orthodoxy; it is the inevitability of the human condition. Regression, therefore, is the only alternative.

I consider the late Congressman and HUD secretary Jack Kemp, deeply rooted in conservative orthodoxy, but no less a leading progressive thinker. He was not interested in returning America to the melancholy longings of yesteryear that never existed.

How long must we endure the hackneyed argument suggesting that a monument in and of itself is history? Taking down a monument is not removing history; it is in all likelihood removing someone’s interpretation of history. Nor should opposition readily equate to its removal.

The argument to remove the statue of, say, former Confederate general and initial grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Nathan Bedford Forest, from public lands is not the same as removing a monument of Thomas Jefferson. Can we make such distinctions judiciously?

Maybe it starts with simply being true to what was said on paper. It is being true to American commitments void of self-interest and pride. Has there ever been a seminal moment in American history that was not infected with self-interest and pride no matter how virtuous the pursuits?

Being true to what is said on paper is not merely conforming to a strict set of precepts. It is locating the uncharted path that is commensurate with the challenges of the current moment. Nor does any of this suggest that America must someday arrive at a tension-free moment. The manner that America was constructed makes tension a key ingredient for its growth.

Alas, being true to what is said on paper is much easier said than done.

The Rev. Byron Williams (byron@publicmorality.org), a writer and the host of “The Public Morality” on WSNC 90.5, lives in Winston-Salem.

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