King Joins Jefferson and Lincoln on the National Mall

Martin Luther King continued President Lincoln's and President Jefferson’s mission of equality.

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A reason to be glad: the memorial to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is done at last, dedicated Sunday in the presence of the first black president and at least one man by his side the day he died in 1968: Jesse Jackson, Sr.

Young on that day in Memphis, Jackson's craggy face has the civil rights movement's struggles painted on it. Similarly, Rep. John Lewis, the congressman from Georgia who took a rain of blows on the famous march in Alabama when he was young, was there, a living testament to social progress on the frontier of race. And Aretha Franklin, the grand dame of Motown music, brought her everlasting talent, style, and spirit.

Historical spirits were there too: the memorials to Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson are not far behind on the National Mall. Actually, the Jefferson Memorial lies in front of the granite statue of Dr. King, across the Tidal Basin's blue water and the Lincoln Memorial stands in the back distance—as if Abe might say, I've got your back.

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But it's Jefferson I dwell on for he, of all presidents, represents the rocky journey the United States—at times disunited states—took to reach one happy day, for all the tears along the way. Yes, Mr. Jefferson, I'm talking to you, who had such a schizophrenic relationship with race, mirrored by a slave mistress that (I believe) you very much cared for. And, I'll get back to you, Abe. Let's make history personal for a change today. Didn't someone say history is really the biographies of great men?

After his beloved wife Martha died, Jefferson took as his mistress his dead wife's half-sister, a beautiful girl named Sally Hemings, decades years younger than he. At his stately Monticello in Virginia, his mountaintop, he was literally master of all he saw. That meant his two white daughters, horses, gardens, fields, a library of books, fine clothes, and the best of wines he chose during his Paris days. Never forget the 100 slaves Jefferson owned to make the wheels of wealthy planter life go round. Among them were the Hemings children born to Sally Hemings—his own, but never recognized as such by Jefferson, even informally. They were the only four slaves he later set free, however, probably by a pact he kept with Sally Hemings. (And the DNA evidence is all in.)

In the new stone depiction of Dr. King, he looks uncharacteristically stern, facing the graceful white marble memorial for Jefferson, which somehow fits his cavalier elegance perfectly. You can almost imagine him dining alone under the dome, where his greatest thoughts are etched in stone. One thing he and Dr. King clearly had in common: a brilliant eloquence. They each expressed a vision for freedom and liberty in a democratic (small d) society.

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Yet Jefferson knew himself better than many of his adoring flock of biographers, for he wrote that he was not equal to living up to his own ideals: "Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism." Those words are set in stone on his memorial and capture the paradox of Jefferson neatly. His writing on the wall is close to a confession: "I can write the words, but I can't walk the walk. The meaning of 'We the people' was not necessarily meant for me."

For Jefferson, life without Monticello's magnificence, without a Virginia gentleman's sumptuous spread supported by slave labor, was not ever part of his plan. So wedded was he to his lavish birth privilege and the American slave system from 1776, when his Declaration of Independence was signed, all the way to the day he died at Monticello, 50 years later to the day, on July 4, 1826.

If Jefferson is a contradiction between the public words and the private man, Lincoln may be seen as evolution in motion during his four years in the White House.

At first, the Civil War president was willing to let slavery remain in the Southern states "as is." Not one slaveowner stood to lose one slave—under the early Lincoln formulation, human beings still could be seen as chattel. As long as the Union stayed together and slavery stayed locked in, without going westward to new states, Lincoln could accept slavery under the divided house. Less than two years later, the fair-minded man from Illinois was the Great Emancipator, right?

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Personally, he always detested slavery and now he would publicly abolish it in a dramatic demonstration of expansion of equality. January 1, 1863 was the day Lincoln freed the slaves from the rebel states. Hurrah for him. He reinvigorated Jefferson's words in the Declaration, about being a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men (sic) are created equal, In other words, Lincoln took those words further than Jefferson could, in kind of a historical relay race.

Dr. King's place in our world was to make the Jeffersonian words mean more, about a century later. He took on the everyday assaults on dignity that came with racial segregation; he lifted up our collective consciousness, black and white; and in his great "I Have a Dream" and "Mountaintop" speeches, he left unfinished business for us. He was a prophet of peace, at home and abroad, as America was torn apart by the war in Vietnam, the nation's first lost war. Just as he symbolically confronts Jefferson, he has Lincoln near for moral support as a team across time in making American history run, in fits and starts, forward.

Welcome to the Mall, Dr. King. You're picking up the neighborhood.

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