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.