Two hundred and seventy-two words changed America.

Before Abraham Lincoln tossed off some brief remarks at the dedication of the war cemetery at Gettysburg (he was not the keynote speaker of the day!), the nation was divided over the meaning of its own creed – all men are created equal.

Did all men mean all men or only all free men?

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Lincoln at Gettysburg, journalist Garry Wills claims the Civil War came to mean to most Americans what Lincoln wanted it to mean.

“Words had to complete the work of guns. He (Lincoln) would cleanse the Constitution…He altered the document from within, by appeal from its letter to the spirit…He performed one of the most daring open-air sleight-of-hands ever witnessed by the unsuspecting.

“Everyone…was having his or her intellectual pocket picked. The crowd departed with a new thing in its ideological luggage, that new constitution Lincoln had substituted for the one they brought there with them. They walked off, from those curving graves on the hillside, under a changed sky, into a different America.”

Well, maybe not so different, yet.

A hundred years later, Martin Luther King Jr. tossed off a few remarks on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. He began by lauding Lincoln and claiming that America had defaulted on its promissory note of equality toward black Americans. He couched his argument in the language of Lincoln and held out hope that the bank of justice was not bankrupt.

King met the same fate as Lincoln. But bullets do not silence truth. And freedom is not a gift that one person gives to another, or one people to another.

Freedom is God’s to give. Human beings can either live together in it with love and respect, or they can die trying to deny it to one another.

The Emancipation Proclamation was one step; the Civil Rights Act another. Laws can prevent injustice if enforced, but unless and until people move from the letter to the spirit, freedom is still elusive.

“The letter kills, but the spirit gives life,” wrote the Apostle Paul. The spirit (or the Spirit) must finally win the day in the human heart for freedom to reign.

Only then will we be able to join King in saying, as he did to close his speech, from the words of the Negro spiritual: “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, I am free at last.”

We are still learning of and praying for that kind of freedom.

In memoriam.