Words That Matter: Joe Biden’s Powerful MLK Day Speech

Yesterday, I was privileged to attend the Delaware State Bar’s Annual Breakfast and Statewide Day of Service in recognition of Martin Luther King Day. The speakers included U.S. Senator Tom Carper, U.S. Senator Chris Coons, Congresswoman Lisa Blunt Rochester, and Chief Justice Leo E. Strine, Jr. You can find highlights from their heartfelt speeches on my Twitter feed. But it was Joe Biden’s keynote address, Reflections on Dr. King: A Model of Leadership, that stole the show and left me with a renewed optimism for our country and our common humanity.

Now, I am a Goldwater / Reagan conservative and free market proponent. I am skeptical of Democrat’s big government programs. (It was reassuring to hear Biden recall his father’s words: “I don’t expect the government to solve my problems, but I expect it to understand them.”) But Biden’s belief in what is good about America and his conviction that this country can, and will, come together again around our common values were compelling. So I share here a few of the highlights from the speech that particularly resonated with me in the hope that some of that optimism, in the face of the daily negativity enveloping us, may be contagious.

Lesson #1: Standing Up Against the Abuse of Power

Leffler_-_1968_Washington,_D.C._Martin_Luther_King,_Jr._riots
Warren K. Leffler / Library of Congress

“What lessons can we take away from Dr. King’s leadership that still resonate today?” Biden began. To answer that question, Biden took us back to the race riots in Wilmington, Delaware following Dr. King’s assassination in April 1968. (I must admit, I hadn’t heard of the Wilmington riots. Though in fairness, not only am I newcomer to tiny Delaware, but I wasn’t even born for another two months. If you aren’t familiar with the Wilmington riots, you can catch up here. Some of you may be more familiar with other riots that were unfolding across the country in cities like Chicago, Washington, DC, Baltimore, Kansas City, and Detroit.)

Biden graduated from law school in the midst of this turmoil. Reflecting on the events around him, he looked to his father, who always stood up against abuses of power in all of its forms. And he looked to his two political heroes, Dr. King and John F. Kennedy, who shared an abhorrence for the abuse of power. Why? Because everyone is entitled to dignity and to respect. And he recalled his parents’ mantra. “You are defined by your courage. And redeemed by your loyalty.” This moment was Biden’s call to action.

Lesson #2: Never Loose Faith

Reflecting on that dark period in our history, Biden noted that Dr. King had every reason to be skeptical of where our country was heading. But remarkably, Dr. King never lost his faith in God or in our political system. This is not easy. Our political system is one of checks and balances, Biden reminds us. One of tug and pull, and tensions between competing political parties.

But no matter how bitter our divisions, at least until recently, it is a political system that has been bound together by a respect for political norms. It has been a political system characterized by honor and civility, though today this idea may seem to be honored in the breach.

There are today those who would attack our political norms and undermine our political systems both at home and abroad. It is expedient. It is easy to blame our troubles on the “other.” The other race, the other nationality, the other party, the other guy. But this is a phony tribalism that offers no solutions. It divides us rather than brings us together. And importantly, Biden reminded us that these forces that are pulling on the fabric of our society and our political systems are a tiny, if vocal, minority.

It therefore falls to each one of us to stand up and to reject and challenge the forces of discord and division. In particular, as members of the bar and the bench, we are guardians of the country’s laws and institutions. Without regard to race, party, or agenda. We must reject tribal constructs of “us versus them” and instead uphold our shared narratives of democracy and freedom. Because it is those shared values that remind us of who we really are as Americans and that pull us back to the political center.

Lesson #3: The Bill of Rights and Human Dignity

800px-I_Am_a_Man_-_Diorama_of_Memphis_Sanitation_Workers_Strike_-_National_Civil_Rights_Museum_-_Downtown_Memphis_-_Tennessee_-_USA
by Adam Jones, Ph.D.

At the heart of racism is the idea that a man is not a man, that some people are less than. Less than human. Less than equal. Less in dignity. But among conservatives and liberals alike, Alexis de Tocqueville, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and others are often quoted as cautioning against the tyranny of the majority (or a tyranny of the minority). To guard against such abuses, our Bill of Rights defines and protects inviolable human rights, dignity, and freedom. And while we may disagree in how to implement these ideals, it is undoubtedly the power of these ideals that make America unique in the world. It is a central purpose of our legal system to protect and preserve these ideals. If we lose this aspiration, then we lose our raison d’être. We lose sight of who we are.

Lesson #4: The Arc of the Moral Universe Bends Towards Justice

Republicans and Democrats alike can cite long litanies of outrages inflicted by the other.  Assertions of bad behavior, partisanship, aggression and over-sensitivity, racism and reverse racism dominate the daily news cycles and tear at the fabric of our country. Huffington Post and Fox News alike ran stories last month about how to discuss (or avoid) politics to survive the holidays with family intact. Divisive times indeed.

But Biden reminds us that, as contentious as things may seem today, our country has experienced far worse in the past. And we have come a long way. From the ashes of the civil rights movement, some 50 years later we elected a black man, an African American, as our president. Something that would have seemed barely possible during the strife and divisions of the civil rights movement. In the words of Dr. King, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” We, as a people, will get to the promised land.

59011354_SSo, to honor Dr. King’s memory, Biden called upon us not to give up and not to become complacent. What I take away from this is, whatever our politics, we must commit to do what is right, to reject the abuse of power in all of its forms, and to protect our institutions and political norms. We must listen to one another. We must commit to truly see one another as people, not labels or political adversaries. And even where we disagree, perhaps deeply, we must always respect our nation’s institutions and core values. Above all, we must each do our part to uphold our shared narratives of democracy and freedom.

Mette K.

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