Martin Luther King Jr.

Monday, January 21, 2008

OVER THE PAST couple of weeks, the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. have proved to be as powerful today as they have ever been. One passage from his "I Have a Dream" speech from the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 seems particularly resonant, as his birthday (he was born Jan. 15, 1929) is celebrated.

"When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir," Dr. King said. "This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt."

Dr. King's faith in America was not in vain. His dream of his children not being "judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character" is much closer to reality today than it was on that historic August day. Forty-five years later, the United States once again stands on the cusp of history.

The son of an African father and a white Kansan mother is in serious contention for the Democratic Party's nomination for president. Sen. Barack Obama has filled the hearts and minds of Democrats, independents and quite a few Republicans with hope. While his appeals to unity are explicitly about bridging the partisan divide between red states and blue states, they also are implicitly about bridging the racial divide. In Mr. Obama, many Americans see an opportunity to right a historical wrong with their votes. His decisive win in the Iowa caucuses has given many hope that racism in America is becoming a thing of the past.

One need only to look at what happened not long ago in Jena, La., for a reminder that prejudice and hatred persist. Nooses dangling from trees, a relic of America's violent Jim Crow past, have had a resurgence of late; they have appeared across the country, including in Maryland, where the General Assembly is considering a law to make it a felony to hang a noose as a form of racial intimidation.

But the vision of Dr. King seems stronger. At a Memphis church on April 3, 1968, the day before he was assassinated, he was at peace with death. "Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. . . . I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land."

For far too many, that land remains out of reach. But we as a people, as Americans, are still pushing toward the goal.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company