How Martin Luther King, Junior Used the Declaration of Independence

Posted on: 16th May 2023


Option 2: Write a 5-7 page final paper. The paper is due at the time of the final exam (no later).

The topic can be of your choosing but should address a big theme of the course and in American Political Thought. You might write, for example, on “political obligation” as it applied to World War II and the Civil Rights Movement. Or how various figures – from Lincoln to Martin Luther King, Jr. – used the Declaration of Independence. Or on strains of libertarianism in American

Political Thought (a topic we took up last week). We ask that you refer to at least four sources from our reading this semester. Be sure to make and defend an argument.

I have attached the list of readings that you are to use as sources:

Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” (1852)

Abraham Lincoln “The Lyceum Address” (1838); “House Divided” (1858); Gettysburg Address (1863);

Second Inaugural (1864)

Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia, pp. 149-64, 167-82

John Rawls, “Justice as Fairness”; “Political Obligation and the Duty of Fair Play”

Judith Jarvis Thomson, “In Defense of Abortion”

Michael Walzer, “The Obligation to Die for the State,”

David Armitage, The Declaration of Independence (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).

Drew Faust, The Creation of Confederate Nationalism (Baton Rouge, 1995)

Robert Westbrook, Why We Fought (Washington, 2004)

Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America (New York, 1992),

Nancy Woloch, Muller v. Oregon: A Brief History with Documents (Boston, 1996)

John Locke “Second Treatise”

The Constitution of the United States

Federalist Papers

Calhoun, "Exposition and Protest"

Booker T. Washington “Atlanta Exposition Speech,” (1895)

The Right to Leisure" by Florence Kelly,

John Maynard Keynes, General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money

Martin Luther King "Letter from Birmingham Jail"

Friedman, "The Relation Between Economic Freedom and Political Freedom,"

Ronald Dworkin, "What the Constitution Says"

Dworkin "The Moral Reading of the Constitution"

Ezra Klein, Why We're Polarized

T.M. Scanlon "The Diversity of Objections to Inequality"

Roe v. Wade

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How Martin Luther King, Junior Used the Declaration of Independence

The drafting and subsequent reading of the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson is one of the most respected occasions that revolutionized how many countries and civil rights groups four for equality. After the Declaration, many countries worldwide followed suit to fight for their freedoms and seek independence declarations. In the United States, many religious groups, civil rights movements, and various advocacy groups also used these founding fathers of the nation's dreams to indicate the need for seeking social and racial justice and equal opportunities without discrimination. One of the most celebrated rights advocates and anti-racial discrimination against blacks was Martin Luther King Junior. In his speech on the American dream, King quoted and discussed the Declaration of independence, reinstating the fact that the founding fathers envisioned an equal society in which men are created equal and should be treated as such without denial of the inalienable rights given by God, or treatment as a lesser person. This was especially critical in the segregation era, where the blacks and people of color were not allowed into public spaces, schools, and social places such as hotels. King's involvement in this direct action, such as in Birmingham's case, contributed to his arrest and the resulting letter from the Birmingham jail. The letter also referred to the Declaration of independence and asked the clergy members to who he was responding and the state to honor it for social justice and equality, just like the founding fathers envisioned. In this respect, the essay entails a look at how the activities and contributions of King helped fight for social and racial justice by advocating equality and freedoms, whether black or white, through reference to the Declaration of Independence content.

The Declaration of Independence

The document was written by Thomas Jefferson and read, which signifies the independence of the US from the British government, which is celebrated in the US on the fourth of July (Douglass). The Declaration has four main parts, which reflect the founding fathers' ideals regarding the new state and reasons for wanting independence. Firstly, equality was a big issue. Jefferson wrote that all men were created equal before God in the second paragraph. In this case, each person should be treated equally without discrimination. Most of the people supporting the Independence from Britain felt that the British King and his government were unfair to the Americans, and the nature of taxes was unjust and hence lacked equality (Douglass). However, this was also during a period of slavery where many African Americans/blacks were treated as lesser persons. Furthermore, women had no say in politics as they were not allowed to vote or participate in political positions. As much as the statement of equality referred to the white people compared to the colonizing states, the information had a broad impact and contributed significantly to the continued hope even of the oppressed to press for equality and rise in revolution (Armitage). This was also replicated in many other states outside the American continent that embraced the aspect of equality to rise and pursue their independence from the colonizers leading to many independent states across the world emulating the example from the US's Declaration of Independence.

The second part entails the inalienable rights of every individual that cannot be taken away by any force or person or government. This formed the source of creating the human freedoms and liberties that cannot be dictated by any law or government or thereby denied for an individual to enjoy. Most civil rights movements have continually used this aspect to advocate for many rights, including political participation for the women and enslaved Black people, among others (Armitage). Having a say in an area is governed critical. Many leaders in the rights movements indicate this section as a foundation of the need to respect the inalienable liberties of an individual, be it black or white, which is also deciphered from the first constitution of the US.

The third part focuses on how the government has an obligation to look after the rights and interests of its citizens. The decision to choose them is a manifestation of the polity that elected them, for a government. Therefore, their sole responsibility is to act in the best interest of that polity (Armitage). The fact that consent entails the governed people having the greater authority to legitimize their government through an electoral procedure demonstrates that it is not only a simple question of giving authority. This became a source for many women's rights movements seeking voting, among other rights that wanted to increase representation and have a say in the government. At the time, black people were counted as half a person when it came to voting and only represented the male gender (Armitage). Women had to fight for these rights and be considered equal in having a say through the election process, among other rights advocated for.

The last part entails that if the government fails to protect the citizens' rights or those it is representing, then the public has a right to change or abolish the government and form a new one. Americans and the founders of the nation, led by Jefferson and other founding fathers at the time, believed that America could rule itself, collect its taxes, and form its government and laws that had the best interest in the region because the British government had failed in this role (Armitage). This became a critical basis for many other states to revolt against colonial authorities and seek independence to run their governments and elect their leaders as sovereign and independent states. Most blacks that were formerly enslaved people and residents of America still felt that this foundational hope in the Declaration of independence would help them also get equal rights in America. The constitution also helped recognize that equality. However, some of the subsequent laws enacted only contributed to blacks' segregation, discrimination, and racial treatment across America. Despite finding hope in the church, some of the influential black leaders, such as Martin Luther King Junior, contributed significantly to the advocacy of the right of every individual by referring to the Declaration of independence through his contributions.

King’s Use of the Declaration of Independence

The American Dream

King felt strongly about the need for blacks to be seen as equals to the whites and accorded the liberties enshrined in the constitution and the Declaration of independence as the founding father had envisioned. In this case, the word emancipation was used widely after the secession of the war. However, despite being freed, the enslaved people in some of the neutral states and some in the southern states continued to suffer and were discriminated against as less equal to whites and denied fundamental rights mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. Therefore, according to King, the world independence itself was also to apply even to the blacks to seek liberation from a segregated society based on race and discriminative toward blacks who never had equal opportunities in America.

King refers to the Declaration of independence in numerous instances during his speech about an American dream where he envisioned and gave hope to the blacks that one day America will become a nation where every person will be equal irrespective of color, that one day there will be a black president signifying intensified political participation, and most importantly a society that embraces equality and liberties inalienable to any human being that will give all people irrespective of race or religion an equal opportunity to succeed and achieve the American dream. For instance, in the speech, King indicates that the words in the constitution and Declaration of independence entail a promissory note which every American falls heir. The use of a promissory note includes a choice of words that gives a promise that the American government had to implement and let the people enjoy the rights of independent states.

In Lincoln's Gettysburg address, these words or equality are echoed by indicating that the Declaration of Independence was dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal (Wills). King uses these quotes to enhance the argument and give hope to many Americans suffering from the class system and political elite at the time that emphasized white supremacy and interests in wealth. In this case, he indicated that being black or poor did not give the government or white the authority to treat them as lesser individuals and deny them the opportunity to exercise their inalienable rights. Referring to the Declaration of independence again, King mentions these inalienable rights of liberty, life, and pursuit of happiness as applying to the blacks and those suffering the racial prejudice ad discrimination due to class status in the US. In this case, the government had failed in its responsibility. It was the act of people to get involved in denying these rights and electing a government or altering the laws to enhance that equality and liberties were attained without prejudice or discrimination. At the end of the speech, King reiterates that all men are equal, and none has created a servant or ruler of another, which is derived from the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence.

The Letter from Birmingham Jail

King wrote a response letter to the clergy, who had indicated his direct-action advocacy, although a court injunction was an untimely and unwise way of solving things. Although it helps propagate the need for revolution using peaceful methods such as demonstrating without violence and boycotting products, he primarily addresses the faults in the way the clergy thinks and advocates for social justice due to discrimination and racism against the blacks. Blacks were not allowed in certain public places and hotels during the period. The schools were highly segregated. Despite efforts to engage the business leaders who made promises they never kept, King still indicates the patience culminating in the direct-action approach to bring this discrimination and denial of inalienable rights to people because of color to the entire world and force the authorities to give them these freedoms and equality. All these advocacies are rooted in the references from the constitution and Declaration of independence as part of the founding fathers.

The reference becomes obvious, particularly towards the end of the letter, where King notes that in the American dream of the founding fathers, the constructs of the US constitution, and the Declaration of independence all align with the beliefs of the church that everyone is equal and deserves the natural rights of a human being. In this case, the tenets of the Declaration of independence, especially concerning equality, equal access to opportunities, and protection of the fundamental rights of human beings as a responsibility of the government, are outlined in this response letter to the clergy. Suppose the government fails to protect and give these inalienable rights to the public, who should not be discriminated against based on color as they are equal before the eyes of God, then in the same way the founding fathers revolted and led to independence. In that case, the public has a right to either change the laws or abolish the government to get a just and representative one to the needs of all the people as equals.


The Declaration of Independence remains a significant document that opened ways for many people, rights movements, and countries to seek independence and freedoms. In the US, one of the people and leaders who have contributed to this Declaration's content's propagation is King. As a church leader and advocate of the rights of black people who were segregated, could not be employed in decent jobs and were denied equal access to education and opportunities, King gave a moving speech that reiterated that men were created equal before God and had inalienable rights that should be observed. The address and the letter from Birmingham jail all advocate for an end to racial prejudice and discrimination and instead practice the founding fathers' spirit that enhances equality and fairness in social justice.

Works Cited

Armitage, David., “The Declaration of Independence.” Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Douglass, Frederick., "What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” 1852

Wills, Garry., “Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America.” New York, 1992

King, Martin Luther. "Letter from Birmingham Jail," “the American Dream.”

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