Martha Nussbaum’s Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice argues for the critical role of sentiment in the shaping of a just society, and the importance of consciously constructed public emotions. Patriotism—frequently maligned and easily abused—is key to Nussbaum’s study, throughout which she turns to leaders such as Lincoln, Gandhi, Tagore, Nehru, and Martin Luther King Jr. for insight into the cultivation of healthy political emotion. In the excerpt below, Nussbaum details the ways in which King’s “I Have a Dream” speech builds a national identity from materials “made available by history and memory,” inspiring love through reliance on songs, symbols, and rhetoric.
The Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863. One hundred years later, its promise had not been fulfilled. Martin Luther King Jr.’s great “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963, is another formative document of American education, and all young Americans have heard it thousands of times, recited in the moving cadences of King’s extraordinary voice on the national holiday that honors him. Nobody could doubt that it is a masterpiece of rhetoric, and that its achievements go well beyond the abstract sentiments that it conveys. Its soaring images of freedom and revelation, its musical cadences, all give the general ideas of freedom, dignity, inclusion, and nonviolence wings, so to speak, making real people embrace them as ideals because of the way in which it cannily gets them to think of these notions as about them and their own.
Let us now examine the way in which King appeals to the history and traditions of the nation, constructing sentiments connected to an idea of America that is, once again, critical and interpretive, bringing forward valuable general ideals from the past and using them to find fault with an unjust reality:
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. . . .
But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. . . . And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. 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. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “inalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. . . .
But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.
[After the prophetic “I have a dream” sections]:
And this will be the day—this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning:
My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride,
From every mountainside, let freedom ring! . . .
And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.
And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.
But not only that:
Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
The speech begins with an allusion to the Gettysburg Address, positioning itself as its next chapter. Just as Lincoln looked back to the founding as a moment of commitment to ideals that he (reinterpreting them) saw as gravely threatened, so King looks back to Lincoln’s freeing of the slaves as a moment of commitment whose promise is still unrealized. He uses a very mundane and very American image for that failure: the nation has given the Negro people a bad check that has come back marked “insufficient funds.” This insistent appeal to fiscal rectitude is also a way of alluding to America, since Americans so love to think of themselves as characterized by that virtue. It is a way of including the white members of his audience, by alluding to a value that they can be expected to share. They too are part of America; thus King creates a united “us” while also encouraging different members of his audience to respond in subtly different ways.
Throughout the speech, King sounds a note of urgency: the “sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent” means that there will be no peace in America until justice is done. And by this allusion to the evil schemes of Richard III, he inspires what he describes: a legitimate, justified anger at the wrongs done by American racism. But he also cultivates in his followers a patriotism that is restrained and critical of violence: they must, in Gandhian fashion, attain moral superiority by forgoing violent deeds. Like Gandhi, who was a major inspiration, he makes nonviolence seem high, “majestic,” and violence look sordid. At the same time, like Lincoln, King appeals to trust between the races, reminding his followers that many white people are present and have joined the struggle for justice: “We cannot walk alone.” By cultivating hope and trust, along with legitimate anger and insistent criticism, he defuses the urge to violence.
The visionary “I have a dream” section of the speech, so well known, is central to the speech’s construction of an image of a future America in which all may join together on terms of equality. But then, immediately following upon this vision of a new America, King returns to national memory and national tradition by quoting in full the famous song “America,” or “My Country ’Tis of Thee.” Very significantly, he now says, “And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.” In other words, the song, which people usually sing complacently, as the account of a reality, is itself prophecy, and its words of freedom must be made true by committed action for justice. Even that complacent song, then, is turned into an exercise of the critical faculties.
The next section of the speech can well be described in the language of jazz, as a series of riffs on the song, as freedom is asked to ring from a series of regions of America. What is going on here? Several very interesting things. First, the image of America is being made concrete and physical by being linked to well-known features of geography. Second, geography itself is being moralized: the mountains of New York are now not just mountains, they are sites of freedom. Third, the body of the nation is being personified in a sensuous, indeed sexy way: the “heightening Alleghenies,” the “curvaceous slopes.” (Thus the invitations to disgust so ubiquitous in malign patriotism are replaced by an embrace of the sensuous reminiscent of Walt Whitman.) But also: the end of the Civil War is finally at hand, as freedom is asked to ring from a series of sites in the South. In a manner reminiscent of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, King expresses malice toward none and charity toward all. The note of sly humor as he gets in his dig at Mississippi (“let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill of Mississippi”) is a reminder that bad behavior has not been forgotten; King thus avoids Lincoln’s ambiguity about blame for bad deeds. Justified resentment has, however, been transcended in a surge of joy whose object is the nation of the future.
Like Lincoln’s speeches, King’s ends on a global note: the victory of integration in America will “speed up that day when all of God’s children” will enjoy freedom. Thus critical patriotism melds naturally into a striving for global justice and an inclusive human love.
Lincoln and King express, and inspire in others, a profound love of America and a pride in her highest ideals. They do so, however, while constructing a narrative of America that is aspirational, foregrounding the best values to which America may be thought to be committed, and also deeply and explicitly critical, showing that America has failed to live up to her ideals. Both sound a note of critical yet hopeful rededication. The speeches seem made for critical pedagogy, for they lead naturally into classroom discussion: Where did America go wrong? What might be good ways of realizing the dream inherent in national ideals? How, even today, are we falling gravely short of the promise in our founding documents?