The Moral Clarity of Martin Luther King

January 17, 1994|By PETER SCHRAG

Sacramento, California. -- If Martin Luther King Jr. had not been murdered in that dreadful spring of 1968, he would have turned 65 Saturday, an age when a man might still be at the top of his career. What, one wonders, would he now be doing? More important, what, in the great confusion of our race relations, would be worthy of a leader who had been willing to become a martyr to his cause?

The questions are not easy to answer. Underlying the uncertainty of the answers is the uncertainty -- one might almost say the nonexistence -- of our contemporary civil-rights agenda. It is no accident, for example, that after a year in office, President Clinton, surely the most racially sensitive president since King's death, still has not managed to appoint anyone to head the civil-rights division of the Justice Department.

At least two people have been seriously considered. Both have fallen victim, not to sharp divisions over race, but to the far more perilous confusion in the broken front of racial progress: about the limits of affirmative action, about the political wisdom and justice of creating minority election districts, even about the desirability of desegregation, which seemed so self-evident to most of the civil-rights leaders of King's generation.

The very principle of color-blindness is questioned. King dreamed of the day when we would judge one another not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character. That seems as long ago now as the clarity of the issue that had brought King to Memphis just before his murder: the attempt to draw attention to the low pay and dreadful working conditions of that city's garbage workers, all of whom were black. By then he knew that the agenda of civil rights was becoming the agenda of poverty -- black poverty, white poverty, American poverty.

In his strategy of sit-ins and linked arms there was more force than in any strategy since.

The fight was always for equal treatment, for better conditions, for parity, for fairness -- for inclusion, most of all -- demands that, however tough they often were to achieve, proceeded from absolute moral certainty. At its core, it was the same moral certainty that informed the campaign for equal treatment for Jews and Asians and Hispanics and that so often led whites and blacks to make common cause with one another and that gave them so much common ground. Deep in our hearts, all of us knew that as minorities gained their rights and dignity, so did we all.

None of this should need saying now; it seems almost maudlin. Indeed even then, King was sometimes ridiculed by younger, more impatient blacks -- they were ''black'' to his ''Negro'' -- for what they disparaged as his turn-the-other cheek reliance on civil disobedience. In his last years he was sometimes derisively dismissed as ''De Lawd.''

But in his strategy -- in the marches and sit-ins, the linked arms in the face of the police dogs, the fire hoses and the church-bombers -- there was more force than in any strategy since. Most of the impatient young men have long since become footnotes -- Roy, Stokely, Rap, Eldridge. It is King who is the acknowledged symbol.

But however simple King's way seems in retrospect, it was anything but simple, and that must be remembered now, if only as a measure of our current confusion. We are far from having fulfilled King's agenda; the Rodney King beating and the events that followed have testified to that. We may feel as unsafe in one another's neighborhoods as we did then, perhaps even more unsafe; many of our schools are as segregated and often as unequal.

And yet think of the achievement of the intervening generation: Count the mayors, the legislators, the judges, the Cabinet officers, the athletes, the professors; count the voters on the rolls, the students in the colleges and the law schools.

It was just 25 years ago last fall that the first black athlete played PTC as a starter on a Southeast Conference football team. It must be hard for any young person now to imagine how important that seemed then: Even as he was playing, the boys at Tennessee and Ole Miss yelling nigger from the stands were confidently declaring that there would never be a black quarterback.

The changes came because there was clarity in the agenda, not tricks or formulas. It came because almost every step represented a self-evident gain for all of us: whether it was a fairer and richer nation or just a better football team. It rarely came where only a demand for special treatment and color-conscious criteria were perceived, regardless of their good intentions.

We must get beyond our confusion. The civil-rights agenda of 1994 often seems only like a shadow of that era, the anti-matter of failed convictions. In their historic demands to be included, the excluded -- our immigrants and our racial and religious minorities -- affirmed the value of the larger society and institutions. The only thing we can really give is equal treatment.

As those objectives are now cast in doubt, the institutions themselves come into question. It is crucial for people to want in; it is that desire that makes the American dream. King honored this country because he believed that the dream was worth dying for.

Peter Schrag is a columnist for McClatchy newspapers.

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