In celebrating the 50th anniversary of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, [see The Future Creates the Present: Martin Luther King’s Gift to America”] most of the commentary was about the promise of his ministry and the reality of life for Black people here in America and the need for the latter to approach the former. Left largely unsaid was the nature of Dr. King’s leadership, particularly his ability to change the nation and with it our future.
Americans today of all political stripes are very much in search of leadership. I believe they thirst for someone to tell it to them straight, lay out the options and take them into a future most of us can embrace. They want to believe in America’s future again. It may be such leaders come along all too infrequently and we are therefore stuck where we are. But I do not believe we have to accept what we have.
What is leadership then? Our recent history contains lessons for us.
Some twenty years after King’s famous speech on the Washington Mall, before the largest gathering of evangelical Christians in our nation’s history, President Ronald Reagan concluded his remarks on that Saturday, May 14, 1983, with: “The Soviet Union is the focus of evil in the modern world.”
Max Kampelman, a Democratic Washington lawyer long close to former Vice President Humphrey, a key negotiator of the follow up agreement to the Helsinki Accords, and destined to be a negotiator of nuclear arms reduction agreements with the Soviets during the Reagan administration, (and a major supporter of SDI and missile defense), said at the time to me as we listened to the President’s speech: “Reagan just changed history with that speech.”
Years later, having been proven correct, Kampelman would more fully explain what he had meant. In a 1991 speech to the American Bar Association, at which he was given the Bar’s highest award, he noted: “With those twelve words, Reagan announced to the Soviets that he had no illusions about what they were about, and he wanted their allies and friends to know this. He also was sending a message to the refuseniks, the camp inmates, and the dissidents. He was with them. And America was with them. And the free world was with them.”
Just as Martin Luther King years earlier had said that America could not exist both free and unfree, so Reagan was saying the free world could not coexist with the world of totalitarian communism, because the world of communism headed by the USSR had as its very objective the destruction of the free world. Kampelman explained: “You can’t believe that totalitarian communism could exist peacefully in a world of sovereign democratic nations founded on the idea that God-given rights were the foundation of civil society. And America had begun to fool itself that you could really believe this”