Remembering life, liberty and equality
January is a month packed with remembrances of momentous events. First up is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, designated each year as the third Monday of the month. It commemorates the birthday of the civil rights leader who courageously led the nation forward in racial equality. A lesser known but also fundamentally important holiday, Religious Freedom Day, likewise falls in the doldrums of mid-winter. This year, the two days coincide on Jan. 16.
And one week later, thousands will descend on Washington for the March for Life to mark the 39th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision that has since led to more than 50 million abortions.
Each of the three commemorations is cause for reflection: one on racial equality, one on religious liberty, and one on human dignity. They are not unrelated. Properly taken together, the trio is part and parcel of an America that lives up to its ideal: freedom for all.
When considering the nation’s struggles over race relations and the sanctity of human life, it is worth first remembering our heritage on religious liberty. January 16’s commemoration harkens back to the 1786 passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. The statute, authored by Thomas Jefferson, underscores that religious freedoms are “natural rights of mankind” given by God, not government.
So important did Jefferson consider the statute that he requested it be listed in his epitaph, sandwiched between two other achievements: his drafting of the Declaration of Independence and his founding of the University of Virginia. Indeed, it was important. The statute served as a forerunner to the “First Freedom” in the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights.
For this reason, it bears significance today. Each year since 1993, the sitting U.S. president has designated Jan. 16 as Religious Freedom Day, commemorating the statute’s passage and urging Americans not to forget the foundations of our religious freedom.
The second of the two Jan. 16 celebrations takes us back to a less distant time in our history, just a half-century ago. The Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday recognizes the civil rights leader’s Jan. 15, 1929, birth and what he helped to achieve in the mid-1950s and ’60s.
His message of racial equality, of a nation where his children would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” reached a crescendo with his “I Have a Dream” speech on Aug. 28, 1963, as part of a March on Washington. Fittingly, King delivered his 17-minute address on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, in the shadow of the 16th president who, one century earlier, led the nation through another racial divide that threatened to tear the nation in two: slavery.
Today, the Atlanta-born Baptist minister is recognized as the central figure in leading the non-violent movement that helped bridge the nation’s bitter racial divide. Just last year, King was honored with a memorial of his own, not far from Lincoln’s.
Since King’s time, marches on Washington continue. One such march is for the protection of unborn human life. The pro-life movement’s biggest rallying cry: the annual March for Life, which will be held one week after the pair of Jan. 16 holidays and one day after the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.
In several respects, the heart of today’s pro-life movement is reminiscent of the civil rights movement of the ’60s. Its marchers are largely people of deep religious convictions. Their demonstrations are overwhelmingly non-violent. And helping to carry the banner is none other than a niece of Martin Luther King, Jr. As national spokeswoman for the Silent No More Awareness Campaign, Dr. Alveda King is a clarion voice for the unborn.
For her, abortion hits close to home. She had two abortions—one involuntary, the other voluntary—and her birthday is Jan. 22, the same date as the Roe decision. Now, four decades later, she desires to help bring healing to those who, like her, have experienced the pain of abortion. She also wants to build on her uncle’s dream. “If the Dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is to live, our babies must live,” she states. “Our mothers must choose life.”
Appropriately, the three commemorations compel us to remember our nation’s ongoing effort to secure the rights guaranteed by our Constitution for all of our citizens. The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom set the foundation for our religious freedom. The civil rights movement set the foundation for racial equality. Now the pro-life movement seeks to set the foundation for protecting the inherent rights of the unborn.
To be sure, we have witnessed both progress and setbacks on each of the three. Now we should resolve afresh and anew to advance them in both policy and practice. On religious liberty, we must defend it. On racial equality, we should continuously pursue it. On the dignity of every human life, we ought to champion it.
It is up to each generation to advance the vision of our Constitution into every area of American life. The three commemorations in the week ahead are good reminders to do so.