To the Burlington Police Department,
Martin Luther King Jr Day was signed into federal law in 1983, and first formally observed in January 1986. It took another 14 years for all 50 states to recognize it officially. Some states refused to use the federal designation, calling it some variant of “Civil Rights Day” instead. Arkansas combined it with Robert E. Lee’s birthday; Virginia added Stonewall Jackson, making “Lee-Jackson-King Day”—both were truculent, scornful insults. Not until January 2000 did the whole country honor it as Martin Luther King Jr Day.
As King himself said, at a commencement address in 1965, “human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals.”
Yesterday I attended Patrick Brown’s annual memorial to Martin Luther King, at the Unitarian Universalist Church. Patrick had invited the president of the ACLU, Deborah Archer, to speak. Her remarks ranged across years, and moved beyond King to quote Frederick Douglas and Langston Hughes. She talked about history—a theme we will start exploring in the next few months with training on equality and the 14th Amendment. She talked about an America where everyone is invested in each other’s wellbeing—a theme that should resonate with all of us, who have dedicated our careers to keeping people safe. Most of all, she talked about King’s legacy, and “closing the gap between the America that is promised and the America that is.”
This is what Martin Luther King meant when he called American democracy “a dream yet unfulfilled,” although he spoke often of that dream’s promise. In a speech given the day before his assassination, he said, “All we say to America is, be true to what you said on paper.”
What America said on paper is what our Constitution promises: that we establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty. That’s not always what has been delivered.
In an earlier speech, about the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, King compared the Proclamation to the Declaration of Independence, saying there is “a schizophrenic personality where these two documents are concerned. On the one hand America has proudly professed the basic principles inherent in both documents. On the other hand she has sadly practiced the antithesis of these principles.”
To align principles and practice, he urged his listeners “to reach back to the origins of our nation when our message of equality electrified an unfree world, and reaffirm democracy by deeds as bold and daring” as Lincoln’s.
For us, in our day-to-day work, our principle is “keep people safe.” Our practice is “fair and equal application of the law.” By striving to make sure our practice meets our principles, we heed Martin Luther King’s call—and we work to make Burlington safe and fair, everywhere for everyone.
Acting Chief of Police Jon Murad
Burlington Police Department