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Pitts: Obama requires reappraisal of America's promise

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He spoke of the promise before he spoke of the dream.

In the first part of the momentous speech he gave at the Lincoln Memorial, the part school children don't memorize and pundits never quote, Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded a watching world that in writing the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, the founders were "signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.

''This note,'' said King, ''was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.'' His evocation of this great American promise may be less well-known than King's description, moments later, of his great American dream, but there is, nevertheless, a straightforward clarity to it that compels.

Because where race is concerned, what is American history if not the story of how that promise was repeatedly broken? As King put it five years later in the last speech of his life, 'All we say to America is, `Be true to what you said on paper.' ''

But America never did.

Except that now, here comes Barack Obama, son of a Kenyan and a Kansan, striding to the podium to accept the nomination of his party for president of the United States. It comes 45 years to the very day after King said he had a dream America's promise might someday be fulfilled, 100 years and a day after the birth of the president, Lyndon Johnson, who helped nudge that dream toward reality. The timing requires you, if you have any music in your soul, any soul in your soul, to reappraise both the promise and the dream.

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