The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: the best of America

Were Martin Luther King alive today to celebrate his 90th birthday, what would he have to say about his nation’s contentious racial landscape?

America is a far different place than when King was felled by an assassin’s bullet in 1968 at the young age of 39.

An African-American has served two terms as president of the United States — something King likely thought even his children would never see.

Blacks have served at the top levels of the Cabinet, on the Supreme Court, in the halls of Congress, as state governors. In New York, both houses of the Legislature are led by African-Americans, and the state’s chief law-enforcement official is a black woman.

Indeed, race is no longer any barrier not just to the ballot box, but to elective office.

Such an achievement surely would cheer King, for it was a long time coming. And it came about because the movement of which he was the public face fundamentally transformed America’s sensibility.

Born in the churches of the South, the civil-rights movement challenged white America to purge itself of racism. It did so through moral power, nonviolence, an appeal to faith, a call for civil disobedience of unjust laws and a plea for full equality.

King accomplished his goals, not through coercion but by persuasion — and by demonstrating the all-too-frequent barbarity of those who sought to maintain injustice.

It’s no wonder, then, that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has entered the American pantheon for what he achieved in just 13 years on the public stage.

But he’d likely be dismayed, too, and not only by the injustices that remain.

He would be pained by the fact that while young African-Americans are no longer barred from schools, they are too often denied a quality education — and so drop out or graduate without the knowledge and skills needed to become fully productive members of society.

We suspect he’d also be distressed by the hypersensitivity and growing political correctness of today’s discussions about race — the near-impossibility of honest dialogue and the insistence by too many on labeling any who disagree with them as racists.

A passionate supporter of Israel, he would be profoundly troubled by the abandonment of the Jewish state by many who were his allies and supporters.

And he would be pained, no doubt, by the fact that we have yet to fully realize his dream of a time when people would be judged solely “by the content of their character” and “not on the color of their skin.”

Yes, King likely would’ve supported the Black Lives Matter movement. But he likely would reject the claim that “all lives matter” is a racist statement. For his was a universal message of equality and dignity for all: “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred,” he warned.

So we honor Dr. King for the goals he pursued and largely achieved — and for a vision the nation still strives to fully realize.

Yes, in the decades since his death, scholars have found that he had his flaws and frailties. To err is human.

Then, too, we nowadays largely idealize his crusade — forgetting the issues that made him even more controversial: his opposition to militarism; his denunciation of America as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today”; his warning that the greatest threat to black progress was “the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to racial justice.”

Ultimately, though, Martin Luther King’s legacy is that he managed to combat injustice by appealing to Americans’ highest aspirations. And that is why the nation rightly celebrates him today.

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