The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Dissent from the left can be patriotic. Martin Luther King Jr. proved it.

The right charges that criticisms of the United States from the left are unpatriotic — but history says they’re wrong

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. (AP)
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Our annual celebration of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is a good moment to remember the close historical relationship between dissent from the left and American patriotism — something critics often miss.

Since the early 20th century, generations of left-wing activists and politicians have attacked the ways that racism, classism, nativism, sexism, Islamophobia and other forms of social injustice have been inscribed into the national culture and institutions. The left also has criticized how U.S. policymakers have exercised power overseas. Rather than aiming to promote democratic values, critics claim, the government has sought to secure valuable material resources and seize control of strategic territory. In recent years, critics have argued that many of these beliefs and behaviors were built into the structure of the nation.

Invariably, the right, and sometimes mainstream liberals, pounce on such claims, branding left-wing movements as anti-American. Recently, they have leveled similar charges against those who self-critically teach American history, especially the history of racism. Those on the right — in the words of former president Donald Trump — see themselves as defending “the legacy of America’s founding, the virtue of America’s heroes, and the nobility of the American character.” They see the United States as “the most exceptional nation in the history of the world” and worry about undermining that perception.

But it is a myth to argue that criticizing the United States is inherently unpatriotic or damaging. In fact, there is a long history of the patriotic left demanding that the United States do better by appealing to the promise of the republic, not rejecting it. And their pressure has often fueled seminal improvements — ones that most Americans today would agree bettered society. Few moments better captured the potential harmony between dissent from the left and patriotism than King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on Aug. 28, 1963. The March on Washington — which drew approximately 250,000 people — aimed to advance racial and economic justice, while pressuring Congress into moving forward with the civil rights bill that President John F. Kennedy had finally sent to Capitol Hill after years of hesitation.

Although today the march is recalled as a proud moment in our past, at the time, many Americans viewed King and the civil rights movement as a radical threat. As historian Glenda Gilmore explains, “Conservative and mainstream politicians smeared King as a communist throughout his career,” while during the 1950s and 1960s, “a vast majority of Americans condemned civil rights protests.” According to one Gallup Poll conducted in 1963, a whopping 78 percent of White Americans admitted that they would leave their neighborhood if a Black family moved in, while 60 percent expressed a critical outlook about the march.

The buildup to the march was tense, with Kennedy administration officials working to avoid unrest or speeches that would be too provocative. At their behest, organizers pressured speakers such as John Lewis, the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, to cut parts of their talks that called for radical economic changes.

Despite these changes, the protest and the speeches represented a radical critique of the nation’s political and legal institutions — one that horrified many on the right. Sen. Strom Thurmond (S.C.), who switched parties from Democratic to Republican in 1964 over opposition to civil rights, asserted that the march was “uncalled for” and that it “distorted in the eyes of the whole world the view of freedom as it actually exists in America.”

Yet King refused to let conservatives like Thurmond claim patriotism as their own. He charged that the people promoting racism, not those crusading for equal rights, were the real threat to the nation.

During his speech, King underscored that the civil rights movement believed in the promise of the United States and embraced the fundamentals of the American experiment. He rooted the movement in Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and explained that it was tragic that “100 years later the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.”

The movement had come to Washington, King said, to “cash a check” that the Founders themselves had written. This “promissory note” was for “the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for all Americans — “Black men as well as White men.” Instead of living up to this “sacred obligation,” the United States had to that point “given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.”

But King refused to sell the United States short, “to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt” or that there were “insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.”

When he reached the especially famous portion of the address, he explained that his dream was “deeply rooted in the American Dream.” He wanted the United States to “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Far from wanting to malign or hurt the United States, King wanted to perfect it. The march left Sen. Hubert Humphrey (D-Minn.), soon to be vice president, more encouraged “that democracy could work,” than any other day in his career. Eugene Patterson, editor of the Atlanta Constitution, also recognized the patriotism at the core of the march — the people gathered expressed their fundamental belief that the government could still be “a reliable instrument of, by and for the people.”

And in fact, the pressure from the civil rights movement helped ensure passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1968 Open Housing Act — now considered crucial achievements in American history.

King continued to articulate his formulation of patriotism that tried to perfect the United States until his tragic assassination in 1968. When protesting the Vietnam War, King expressed that the desire to ensure “the health of our land” drove him and his allies “down the path of protest and dissent.”

Not all left-leaning critics of the United States are patriotic (as is also true of right-leaning critics, as evidenced by the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection). But King’s most famous speech is a reminder that there is also no inherent barrier separating patriotism from dissent that assails the United States for not living up to its values. History shows the two have often been deeply intertwined. As Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne wrote, “Progressives love our country so much that we know it’s strong enough to acknowledge how racism, nativism, religious prejudice, and other forms of injustice and intolerance are embedded in our nation’s story.”

And King’s moving oration in August 1963 and its aftermath demonstrate how working to address these flaws has often led the United States closer to the most fundamental promises embedded in the Founders’ vision for the nation.