50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s March on Washington

Floor Speech

Date: Aug. 1, 2013
Location: Washington, DC

Mr. ROTHFUS. Mr. Speaker, from time to time in our Nation's history, people of faith have stepped forward to call this Nation to something greater. This is steeped in our culture, our tradition, and our founding documents. It goes back to the cross at Cape Henry and to the landing at Plymouth Rock. You see it in our Declaration of Independence and again in the movement to abolish slavery.

Then, in the 1950s and 1960s, it was people of faith who birthed the new civil rights movement. No figure cast a wider shadow on that movement than the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. This month, we mark the 50th anniversary of one of the most iconic speeches in American history--Dr. King's address at the Lincoln Memorial. It is a great honor for me to stand here today to recollect the words of Dr. King, a man who stands among the heroes of our Nation.

Dr. King was a pastor. He received a divinity degree from Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. His call to the ministry led him to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, where, in the church's basement, he helped to plan the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955. That Dr. King's actions were motivated by his faith in a just God is evident when you read his words.

From the marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he used the words of the prophet Isaiah to articulate his dream of an end to injustice and oppression:

That one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low; the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

Martin Luther King, Jr., looked not for a revolution but for an affirmation of the country's founding principles when he declared:

That we have 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 would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

It was not the first time that Dr. King had alluded to the promise of our founding documents. Just 4 months before the March on Washington, in writing from a Birmingham jail, he wrote that African Americans had waited for more than 340 years for their constitutional and God-given rights.

King's letter from a Birmingham jail could not be clearer in its articulation of the moral status of law and the role that religion plays in a just society:

Now [King wrote] what is the difference between a ``just'' and an ``unjust'' law? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a manmade code that squares with the moral law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.

Yes, Dr. King appealed to the Nation's religious roots to encourage social change, and from a Birmingham jail, he encouraged individuals to confront unjust laws:

[T]here is nothing new [King wrote] about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions ..... rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. ..... In our own Nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.

We should never forget [King continued] that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ``legal'' and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ``illegal.'' It was ``illegal'' to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany. Even so, I am sure [King proclaimed] that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived [King continued] in a Communist country, where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country's anti-religious laws.

King's letter from a Birmingham jail and his ``I Have a Dream'' speech should be required reading for every American high school student and for every Member of Congress.