01/17/2011 07:25 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The American Family

In President Obama's Tucson memorial speech, he talked about Americans as a family. On a Martin Luther King Jr. Day with our country still in grief over the Tucson shooting, it is appropriate to reflect on this idea -- an idea shared by King himself as well as other great American leaders.

Throughout his career, King's speeches and writing were suffused with the ideas and images of family, community, and interdependence. Images of people holding hands in fellowship and "sitting down at the table of brotherhood together" were woven into many of his most important speeches. Invoking his own children in his most important speech as a metaphor for his dream of an American future -- where we are all judged by "the content of our character", and where one day "little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers" -- was a clarion call for a vision of an American family. In another landmark sermon, King spoke of ingratitude as being one of the worst sins of all because a person "fails to realize his dependence on others". He went on to say that our fates were "inextricably linked in a garment of destiny."

King was a civil rights leader, but he was hardly just a civil rights leader. He had a broader progressive vision for America, a vision rooted in our nation's most sacred American "scriptures": in the Declaration of Independence and its promise of equality and guarantee of the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and in Lincoln's Gettysburg Address to a nation "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal" and a "government of the people, by the people, for the people". The reason King's "I Have A Dream" speech has joined those two other documents as a sacred American text is because the ideas in it are too compelling to ignore, too fundamental to the American ideal and identity to be anything other than an iconic American text.

This notion of America as one people, one family -- not just a collection of states or special interests -- is core to our identity, and you can see it in response to the tragedy in Tucson. As in other terrible moments of our history like Sept. 11 or the Oklahoma City bombing, Americans have joined together to support each other in our grief and our determination to go forward united. The outpouring of love and compassion for all the victims has been moving beyond words. The stories of heroism during the event, like the amazing stories of heroism during the Sept. 11 tragedy, were reminders of the courage so many people have even when the worst is happening in front of their eyes. We Americans may be rugged individualists, but we also are one people, one family, mutually interdependent.

The question remains, of course, whether this American family will become more dysfunctional or more caring for all its children. Goodness knows there are way too many dysfunctional families, where children go hungry or are abused, where mental health is not nurtured, where disagreements turn violent. But Martin Luther King Jr. and the recent events in Tucson both call on us to build a stronger American family -- a family that takes care of each other through the worst of times and nurtures each other all the time; a family where all children get a good education and are taken care of when they are sick; a family where differences and disagreements are treated with respect; a family where kindness and the Golden Rule of treating everyone as you want to be treated are revered values. That is the kind of America I want to live in, not the kind of society where, as Glenn Beck put it to a conservative audience who responded with laughter and applause, "the lions eat the weak."

We have a long way to go before my dreams of a mutually supportive American family get realized. The lions that want to eat the weak have been roaring and rampaging. But I still have hope that King's dream of an American family that sits down as brothers and sisters, and that Lincoln's Gettysburg vision of an America of the people, by the people, for the people shall come back into fashion.