We are a nation founded on the principle that “all men are created equal.” When the founders wrote those words, they had a very a different idea about equality.
Nevertheless, that fundamental principle has endured and the list of people who are “created equal” has expanded over the years, to include women, people of different races and religions, and all people regardless of sexual orientation.
The expanding of equality did not happen by accident. It was hard won. There is no better time to reflect on those struggles than during a month when we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr., our greatest advocate for equal treatment of all people. It is Dr. King who reminds us of the countless battles fought by generations of people who joined together to make this country a better place.
An important milestone in the struggle for equality is having our president stand proudly before the nation citing Seneca, Selma and Stonewall in a single breath and inspiring all who listen. While we have far to go, we know we have become stronger and more united as a result of those struggles.
Obama’s inauguration address, delivered on the symbolic occasion of Dr. King’s birthday, was both a celebration of our heritage and a call to action to continue doing better. It was filled with a sense of hope and faith that all people have goodness within them. “We cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve,” Obama said. Dr. King shared those beliefs, and we can only assume he would be proud to hear them spoken on the national mall where he famously spoke his own inspirational words 50 years ago.
Of course, equality is not the only freedom that is essential to our national sense of justice. We also value “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” another principle our founders imparted that has evolved over time. Over the years, as America has become one of the world’s safest and most prosperous nations, we have come to expect not only social freedom but economic well-being and personal security from harm. Some Americans may even believe they are entitled to those privileges and no longer must work for them.
Hercules Cornish went to work for the Housing Authority as a caretaker J in 1952 and retired 24 years later as a stores worker. He died the year following this interview, which was conducted in June 1999.
Originally I was from Harlem, but when I came out of the service in 1945 my wife had moved to the Bronx, so I moved there, too. I went to work for the New York City Housing Authority in 1952.