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Martin Luther King Jr. Day

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Monday, January 18, 2010

THIS DAY has become, like most of our holidays, more an occasion for rest, recreation and celebration than for reflection. But our national regard for all things decimal suggests that Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2010 is a good time to do a little looking back and sizing up.

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Fifty years ago, and just across the river from the nation's capital, children of African descent (including many whose ancestors worked the land for George Washington) were being bused far from their neighborhoods to maintain segregated school systems. Black people in Virginia were discouraged from registering to vote, interracial marriage was prohibited -- in Arlington and Fairfax counties -- and lunch counters generally expected black customers to order carry-out only. In parts of the District (where public schools had been desegregated for only a few years) and its Maryland suburbs, housing discrimination created what civil rights activists called a "white noose" around the inner city. The Washington Redskins had not a single black player.

All this unpleasant history is, of course, well known, but not really all that well remembered, even by many of those who lived it. Then as now, the concrete, day-to-day realities of segregation were put out of mind by many who weren't its victims. There were places, especially farther south, where elemental emotions of fear and hatred were what sustained the system, but in this generally tolerant and well-educated region, it was more a matter of accepting an arrangement that most could see was unfair but that didn't seem to work too badly -- at least not for them.

In 1963 blacks and whites came together in a great congregation on this city's Mall that did not change history but, rather, confirmed that it was on a new course. The nation was not wired or pre-informed then -- each sentence that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. uttered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial was new to most Americans -- "I have a dream," "the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners" and the exultant conclusion: "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!" It was perhaps the most powerful, authentic speech delivered in this city of oratorical winds during the 20th century.

As always happens after such occasions, there have followed many setbacks and side trips, discouragements and disillusionments. Yet one need look back only five decades, not that long a time, really, to understand how much was accomplished that day. America today still has deep problems with racism, even under the administration of its first African American president. But it can also be argued that in the past half-century the country has undergone a sort of conversion experience similar to that of Abraham Lincoln. In 1862 he told a group of black leaders invited to the White House: "You and we are different races. It is better for us both to be separated." Yet, less than three years later, he invoked an almost biblical vision of the Civil War as divine punishment for the sin of slavery. He had changed in important ways. So has this country. Look around now and look back 50 years. There's been backsliding and wandering, but that was not a fleeting conversion that Dr. King helped bring about.


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