02/19/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Promissory Note For the American Promise

Four years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave the famous "I Have A Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he delivered a very different lesson at the Riverside Church in New York City. There, speaking about the Vietnam War, he told his audience that "a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."

King pushed his point further still: "We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered."

In effect, King was arguing that the greatest challenge facing the cause of civil rights and even American society in its entirety came not simply from one element of our nation. Instead, King argued, it was the distorted state of the most fundamental conception of American political and/or social economy that was in and of itself responsible for social and economic injustice. King saw society's most vulnerable members grasping hopelessly in the dark for a real moral economy. But in the place of a political economy that acknowledged society's own role in the distribution of economic opportunity and social justice, America operated according to a political economy that considered an individual American's poverty as the failure of that individual's moral character. That deviant form of American political economy was what King sought to tie down for examination.

Although King's aim in the speech, entitled "Beyond Vietnam: A Time To Break Silence" was indeed different from that of the "I Have A Dream" speech, it was thematically related. In the "I Have A Dream" speech, King was acutely aware of the same central issue within our political economy, yet he described it in more starkly racial terms, "When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir... It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned."

One American has demonstrated most vividly the urgent moral obligation represented by the inheritance of that promissory note, and he will become our President in less than twenty-four hours. In his rhetoric and in his "Blueprint for Change," President-elect Obama has refined Dr. King's insightful analysis of our society's shortcomings into a powerful call for national unity.

At INVESCO field, President-elect Obama's speech brought the nation face-to-face with the still pervasive system of political and social economy of which Dr. King had said so much: "In Washington, they call this the Ownership Society, but what it really means is - you're on your own. Out of work? Tough luck. No health care? The market will fix it. Born into poverty? Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps - even if you don't have boots. You're on your own."

And just as Dr. King had proclaimed from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, once again in specifically racial terms, that "[white Americans] have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone..." Barack Obama's name became a household one when he described at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 that "fundamental belief: I am my brother's keeper; I am my sister's keeper, that [idea] makes this country work. It's what allows us to pursue our individual dreams and yet still come together as one American family."

President-elect Obama's recent election indicates the truthfulness of the point that he brought home in 2004, that "there is not a liberal America and a conservative America -- there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America - there's the United States of America." Then again, four years later at INVESCO, President-elect Obama reminded his audience that the men and women who serve on our battlefields "have not served a Red America or a Blue America - they have served the United States of America." "That's the promise of America" as all Americans are coming to understand in the troubled and changing times in which we find ourselves: "the idea that we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise and fall as one nation."

On the eve of Obama's inauguration, the nation stands poised to go, hand-in-hand, to what Dr. King called the "Bank of Justice" and the "great vaults of opportunity of this nation" to seek reimbursement for that promissory note; it has been a long time coming, and it is indeed how President-elect Obama described it: "our greatest inheritance." It belongs to every American.