Office of the President

January 16, 2017

Pursuing the ideals of a more perfect union

Ana Mari Cauce

This week begins and ends with two important days in the civic life of our nation: Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Inauguration Day. In many ways, these two days represent two sides of the same coin.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we celebrate the life of a man who used advocacy, peaceful protest and civil disobedience to advance the cause of human rights. And on Inauguration Day, we mark the peaceful transition of power as determined by the votes cast in our electoral system.

Peaceful protest and political action are mutually reinforcing methods of achieving change in our society. To achieve the force of law, the spirit of the message of Dr. King and his colleagues had to be enacted via legislation. And to make the passage of such legislation possible, their message of love and calls for justice had to reach the hearts of voters and elected officials.

The “right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances” is enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution, just as our right to elect our representatives is spelled out in that same Constitution. Of course, during the history of the United States the implementation of those values has too often been incomplete. And I do not believe anyone today could say we have achieved a perfect union.

Despite our imperfections and the slow pace of change, the United States is a nation whose fundamental principles are unequivocally worth protecting, even as we strive to ensure they fully protect all of us – as we strive to create that “more perfect union.”

The messiness of democracy is a feature, not a defect. The interplay of differing ideas, deeply held and passionately argued, is how we reach understanding. If we permanently retreat into like-minded bubbles of our own making, or if we treat democracy and discourse as zero sum games, then we do so at great cost to our society, and ultimately to ourselves.

So this week, in addition to taking part in the ongoing events of our MLK Week celebration, I hope you will consider the ways that you can help build understanding and create positive change, whether in our own country or in the many places throughout the world you may touch. For as Dr. King said, “The time is always right to do what is right.”