The egalitarian ideal: Lincoln foreshadowed Martin Luther King

    This rare photograph shows Abraham Lincoln taking the oath of office on March 4

    This rare photograph shows Abraham Lincoln taking the oath of office on March 4

    I refuse to soil Martin Luther King Day by parsing the repugnant toddler’s tweets about John Lewis. This national celebration is supposed to lift us up, not sink us in the sewer. Suffice it to say that sliming a bloodied civil rights hero ill-serves the egalitarian spirit of this day.

    Michael Gerson, the conservative commentator and ex-George W. Bush speechwriter, says it better than I: “Trump seems to have no feel for, no interest in, the American story he is about to enter. He will lead a nation that accommodated (slavery); that bled and nearly died to recover its ideals; and that was only fully redeemed by the courage and moral clarity of the very people it had oppressed. People like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. People like John Lewis.”

    It was Abraham Lincoln – the first Republican president, leader of a very different Republican party – who foreshadowed the egalitarian ideal. In a letter to his friend Joshua Speed, written six years before he was sworn in, Lincoln lamented the rise of the Know-Nothings, an 1850s party that preached bigotry and hatred of immigrants. Lincoln’s concluding passage (with updated spelling) has discomfiting contemporary resonance. I especially love the last sentence:

    I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor…? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we begin by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.

    Lincoln instinctively embraced our highest ideals. At a time of extreme polarization, he took a stand. He understood that egalitarianism was a moral imperative.

    Which brings us to Martin Luther King. If he were alive today, he would be shrugging off Trump’s inevitable slimings. He would be urging us to stand firm against home-grown, Russian-inspired authoritarianism, and the impending assaults on the egalitarian spirit. King’s challenge:

    The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.

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    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

    he hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict. Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/m/martinluth134767.html

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