Thoughts on King's Birthday

January 15, 1994

Were Martin Luther King Jr. alive, he undoubtedly would find much to celebrate in contemporary America -- but also much that would trouble him.

The legal barriers to equality he fought so hard against have been largely dismantled. Across the country, hundreds of black officeholders have been elected in the 26 years since his death. The black middle class has doubled in size.

Yet Dr. King's dream of an America purged of racial hatred and mistrust, where people might be judged on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, remains an elusive goal. In Vidor, Texas, four black tenants required an armed escort of government agents to move into a public housing project this week. Earlier this year, Klan racists and other bigots drove out the handful of blacks living there as a result of previous attempts to integrate the project.

The aftermath of the Rodney King trial in Los Angeles, which saw the worst rioting in that city since the 1960s, produced convictions in the trials of the officers who beat Mr. King and of black rioters who attacked a white truck driver, Reginald Denny, who happened on the scene. But both incidents left the image of a color-blind criminal justice system severely tarnished.

One of the leading organizations that has attempted to carry on Dr. King's legacy also finds itself under fire. The Baltimore-based NAACP last year named a new director, Benjamin Chavis, who almost immediately became sidetracked by a controversy over football franchises. The group's effort to reach out to young gang members and to the Nation of Islam's Minister Louis Farrakhan produced mixed results: Gang members signed a truce but the killing reached record levels; Mr. Farrakhan denied he was a bigot but his spokesmen continue to spew anti-Semitic vitriol.

Dr. King based his appeal on the moral rightness of his cause. He challenged Americans to live up to the ideals on which the nation was founded. In doing so, he helped free whites as well as blacks from the burden of racial oppression.

One fears the moral clarity of that vision is in danger of being lost when the Rev. Jesse Jackson can be denounced for speaking up on behalf of black crime victims, while charlatans like Leonard Jeffries and Al Sharpton grab the media spotlight. In these fast-changing times, seemingly anyone can be a "leader" through demagogy, intimidation and lies.

On this day, let us recall Dr. King's vision of a just society and the high road that leads there. That he chose the hard but honorable path was the measure of his greatness. We honor the best in ourselves when we honor him.

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