By Walter Suza, Guest columnist
“I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land.” — Martin Luther King Jr.
Those words by Dr. King, from his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, echo in my mind as I reflect on a hike with friends in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
“We, as a people, will get to the promised land!” Dr. King also said.
On the hilltop, we were greeted by a cool breeze and presented with a breathtaking vista of green hills and valleys. Thinking about the experience from hiking in Colorado makes me want to imagine the vista of the promised land. What Dr. King saw must have looked angelic.
Yet, over 400 years since the first enslaved Africans were brought on this land, the promised land remains out of sight for many. Even after the Declaration of Independence and Emancipation Proclamation, America is still experimenting whether our constitutional republic can work.
If you asked me if the American experiment is working, I would say not so well, especially if you consider that we almost experienced a coup on Jan. 6 and that the political climate is deteriorating heading into the 2022 elections.
But I would also say there’s hope.
Even though they didn’t live to see it, the Framers hoped the experiment would create a more perfect union.
Even though he didn’t live to see it, Dr. King believed the marginalized would see the promised land.
President Lyndon B. Johnson also believed and turned the visions into action. Having lived in poverty as a child, assuming the presidency after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, LBJ championed a society free of not only poverty, but also racial injustice.
“We have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society,” LBJ said in a speech at the University of Michigan.
His landmark programs include the Food Stamp Act, Medicare, Medicaid, expanded Social Security benefits, the Economic Opportunity Act, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
Yet despite LBJ’s commitment to improve quality of life in America, creating a great society was a daunting task.
Despite signing the Civil Rights Act, LBJ still presided over a society that produced Bloody Sunday.
Despite signing the Voting Rights Act, LBJ still presided over a society that produced the assassination of Dr. King.
Despite LBJ’s War on Poverty, almost 40 million Americans still live in poverty.
This is because “We the People” do not always treat each other as equal and accept to live together. “We the People” frequently lose sight of the promised land because we refuse to melt in the pot of our diverse cultures, religions and beliefs.
The melting pot doesn’t contain just “We the People”: it also contains the genocide of Native Americans, slavery, Civil War, racial segregation and countless other injustices.
The American experiment inside the melting pot is messy, and the journey upward to a more perfect union, a Great Society, the promised land, is long and hard. We become frustrated, we thirst for hope, yet we’re challenged to drink from the melting pot, whose contents can be bitter and hard to swallow.
It’s hard to swallow that we spent trillions on a lost war but refuse to spend a trillion to lift fellow Americans out of poverty.
It’s hard to swallow that the right to vote is still under attack.
It’s hard to swallow that many of our elected leaders fail to realize that the best outcome of the American experiment is for all Americans to get to the promised land.
The promised land is where the great society will live.
Dr. King knew getting there would be hard. LBJ discovered the way upward is hard. So, perhaps serendipitously, at the end of his presidency LBJ revealed the narrow path upward when he admitted: “I want to be the president who helped to end war among the brothers of this earth.”
Our society will become great through true brotherhood, where we sacrifice our egos to create a path for our fellow Americans to get to the promised land. In the promised land no one will be denied their Right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
“We have been regarded as engaged in trying a great experiment, involving not merely the future fate and welfare of this Western continent, but the hopes and prospects of the whole human race,” read an excerpt from “The American Experiment” essay published in 1860 in the New York Daily Tribune.
The fate of this nation is at a crossroads. Head to another civil war or move toward true brotherhood in the promised land.
May God help us choose the latter.
Walter Suza of Ames writes frequently on the intersections of spirituality, anti-racism and social justice. He can be contacted at [email protected].