Reflecting on the Civil Rights Movement on MLK Day

The following is a piece I presented at a prayer service on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day last year. The service was meant to honor the Civil Rights Movement. I had another speech, one delivered on November 19, 1863, in mind when I wrote it.

The story of the Civil Rights Movement is the story of a broken promise redeemed, a promise made on the day this nation was born, the promise of liberty and equality for all, a promise breached as soon as it was made.

Our nation would pay a terrible price for that wretched, grinding breach. The price would be paid at places with pastoral names like Shiloh Church, Antietam Creek, and Gettysburg, places whose names now signify the unthinkable slaughter extracted as the price for our breach.

When the guns were silent, when the slaughter of our Civil War ended, when many thought the broken promise would at long last be redeemed, we instead broke it again. And for another century generations of our fellow Americans, millions of our fellow Americans were born and died, robbed all their lives of the blessings of liberty and equality, waiting for our broken promise to be redeemed.

Fifty years ago, prodded out of our moral slumber by the men and women we celebrate today, we found the collective will to end the wait. And the promise, nearly two hundred years after its making, seemed finally redeemed. Slowly, deliberately, and with great purpose, liberty and equality came to millions so long denied those blessings. 

Now we know how fragile the promise of liberty and equality is; we know the price of liberty and equality is eternal vigilance. We must daily renew our promise, we must always keep the promises we make to each other, and we must promise to embrace our many differences so that a simple, beautiful idea – a nation of, by, and for all of its people – will long endure.