An audacious faith in mankind

Posted: Dec 18, 2002 12:00 AM
"I have an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in mankind." If Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. could say that in the 1960s, how much more confidently can we say that today! Problems abound, but we must not lose sight of how far we have come or miss the opportunity to make our contribution to an American future where every child is guaranteed equality of opportunity and equal justice under the law. I share King's abiding faith in America and his audacious faith in mankind, for without it I would despair. But if we maintain our faith in mankind and recognize one of God's great blessings to us -- an innate good will toward one another -- we are empowered to work toward King's dream, which he said was inextricably linked to the American Dream as defined in our Declaration of Independence. That dream, what he called the "real promise of democracy," is the promise of equality -- not of equality of result, but the equality of opportunity -- based upon the recognition that a free people seeking to advance their lot in life is a positive-sum game in which everyone is able to prosper. That's the reason I spoke out so strongly about my old friend Trent Lott's indefensible comments about Strom Thurmond's '48 Dixiecrat campaign, which I also found inexplicable and inexcusable. I want our Party of Lincoln to speak with one voice on freedom, equality of opportunity and justice for people of color in America. In his press conference, Trent rose to the occasion and found that voice of unity and racial reconciliation. He apologized for his insensitive remarks, and he denounced segregation and discrimination as evil. He asked for forgiveness, and I pray and expect he will receive it from most men and women of good will. I was glad to hear Trent echo Lincoln's theme of entrepreneurial capitalism -- the principles of ownership, self-improvement and upward mobility -- which has always been understood intuitively by people of color. With the Emancipation Proclamation and the Homesteading Act in 1862, then that same year the Morrill Land Grant College Act, the Republican Party offered a combination of property ownership, entrepreneurial opportunity, educational opportunity and the vision that any poor person in America should be able to own his own land and climb the ladder to what we call, loosely, the American dream. In reality, it is the "dream universal," from Asia to Africa, from Latin America to Eastern Europe. Politically, the Democratic Party has been the party of the "safety net," while the Republican Party has been the party of the "ladder of opportunity." We need both! And that's why we need both parties to be vibrant and competitive. A thriving democracy requires both political parties to compete for every single vote. It is unhealthy, and ultimately destructive of democracy, for any single group of voters to be beyond the reach of one party or the other. That is why the current situation in America is politically untenable, where too many Democrats take black voters for granted and all too many Republicans write off the black vote as a lost cause. This situation must not stand, and I for one won't support a member of my party who operates under this assumption. I'm glad to see our president reaching out so strongly and sincerely to Latinos, Hispanics and immigrants. And I honestly believe if he makes the same efforts in the African-American community, our political party will be rewarded at the polls and more importantly, our nation will benefit. The measure of our compassion should not be how many needy people receive government aid, but how many people do not need government assistance because they're now on that ladder of upward mobility that Lincoln called the desire to improve one's lot in life. This is the heritage of the United States, going back to one of the founding principles of the nation, that all men are created equal and, until Republicans tragically compromised this principle in an effort to lure Democratic segregationist votes their way, it was also the legacy of Grand Old Party. The GOP went wrong in 1964 when Barry Goldwater, no racist, tragically voted against the Civil Rights Act out of misguided ideological purity. There were many fine men and women in the Republican Party, all for civil rights, but the party itself was not associated with the struggle for justice and equality. By contrast, the Democratic Party, which was the party of segregation in this country, embraced the civil rights movement. This enabled the Democratic Party to shed its segregationist image and gain the loyalty of African-Americans. The Republican Party had a great history of civil, human and equal rights that became obscured in the '64 campaign and to a greater extent even before. We should have been there with King, Andy Young and Ben Hooks on the streets of Atlanta, Montgomery and Birmingham. We should have been there with John Lewis on his Selma March. We should have been there with Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Ala., in December of 1955, but we now have a second chance, and we must not lose it. I believe Trent Lott's sincere apology and his upcoming dialogue with the African-American community can serve as a watershed for him, the New South and the Republican Party.