"Where do we go from here?"

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Owen Tullos
  • 49th Wing Judge Advocate, staff judge advocate

"Where do we go from here?" Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked this question as he gathered the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to shape the face of freedom in America. Dr. King did not advocate for a new constitution:  he argued for a more perfect implementation of freedom, equality, and government of the people. As Sir Isaac Newton did in the field of science, Dr. King saw further into freedom's future because he stood on the shoulders of giants. He recounted a fundamental truth captured in our Declaration of Independence:  all men are created equal. 

Every President since Dwight Eisenhower has declared a Law Day--typically May 1--to galvanize the American people who led the world in self-government. This year, Law Day challenges our citizens to reflect on our American democracy, on our rule of law, and on why every vote counts. How far have we come in the 50 years since the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act? Asked another way, how far have we come from the meeting houses of Selma, Ala. or Philadelphia, Pa. 

Dr. King advocated against barriers to equality under the law. Obstacles such as poll taxes and literacy tests effectively barred many minorities from voting or other participation in governance. The right to vote already existed; the principle of equality had long been enshrined in law. But we the people had to work through trial and errors in perfecting those freedoms. The Civil Rights and Voting Acts changed the implementation of these principles and tore down dividers. 

An ardent search of nations throughout history convinced our founding fathers that "the" perfect government did not exist. Other nations' attempts to create utopian societies through government actions failed miserably. But hearken to what our Constitution called us to hold in trust:  not a perfect union, but "a more perfect union." 

Our founding fathers wrote the Constitution as a foundation for people to work through their issues and forge a free nation. Eighty years later, President Abraham Lincoln leaned on these pillars to combat slavery within a government "of the people, by the people and for the people." Likewise, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to America's foundational freedoms when shaping civil rights. 

History dubs America's government as "the great experiment." Our fundamental freedoms endured because every vote is a voice. FDR warned that the voice of freedom--the vote--can only be silenced if it is not exercised. But just as importantly, the vote is only one form of the voice. Today, courageous citizens are meeting in other Selmas and other Philidelphias with voices shaping the face of freedom's future. Heroes of history passed onto us a sacred trust:  shape the face of freedom. Dr. King's question echoes as strongly today as ever:  "Where do we go from here?"