Let us begin with the old joke about the Lone Ranger and Tonto and how they find themselves surrounded by a horde of hostile Indians. The Lone Ranger sizes up the situation and asks, "Tonto, what do we do now?" To which Tonto replies, "What do you mean 'we,' white man?"

Like "blood is thicker than water" and other such sayings, this joke has entered the folklore as yet another way of saying we are what we are or, to put matters another way, what we were born. Still, not since Tonto kissed off his close personal kemo sabe have we seen such a statement of racial identification as Ronald Reagan's explanation of why the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. probably should not be a holiday.

The president first declared neutrality on the issue, saying, "I haven't taken a stand one way or the other . . . ," thereby implying that to do nothing was about the same as doing something. Of course, this is not the case since to do nothing is to favor the status quo--or, in other words, to take a position against making King's birthday a holiday.

But the president did not stop there. Speaking as a white man, he reminded blacks that, while he had the "deepest sympathy" for the movement to honor King, there were other minority groups in this country and they had their heroes, too. "We could have an awful lot of holidays if we start down that road," the president said, adding that someone had to consider the cost of it all. " . . . It might be that there's no way we could afford all the holidays."

Offhand, it is hard to come up with a single movement to memorialize the birth of any person other than King. But granted such a movement and such a person exists, it is interesting that the president has lumped Dr. King in with the obscure. Worse than that, though, he is talking about him as if he were the bizarre creation of some ethnic group--the arcane hero of an arcane group. If that were the case, a bridge or a causeway would do very nicely.

But King is no such person. He is a Nobel laureate of peace, a man of enormous accomplishment who had the kind of vision and commitment and, in the end, sheer guts that you think exists only in myth and fiction. King was the field marshal of the civil rights movement. He helped change America and while it might have changed anyway there is hardly anyone who would not concede that Martin Luther King made a difference.

There is no doubt that King and his accomplishments have a special meaning to blacks. There is also no doubt that in some way King had--and in some ways still has--a special dimension because he was black. A holiday memorializing him would, after all, be the only holiday honoring a black person. That has got to have meaning to black people--a meaning lots of white people could not begin to appreciate.

But where the president misses the boat is in failing to realize that King is not just a black hero, any more than George Washington is just a white hero. Not only did King lead a civil rights crusade (not to mention antiwar and antipoverty movement) that was racially integrated itself, he did it in behalf of an entire nation. The immediate beneficiaries of his civil rights activities, of course, were black. But in the end, the whole nation benefitted. We are all better off because of what King did.

The president misses the entire point of the civil rights movement if he continues to see it as something done for blacks only and if he persists in seeing blacks as some sort of "them"--not regular day-in-day-out Americans. He has made the same mistake with working women and with poor people and with any other group that is not off some old Saturday Evening Post cover about general stores and potbellied stoves.

Maybe not enough time has passed to evaluate King's contribution and see whether he measures up to the likes of Washington or Lincoln--not to mention Jefferson, whose greatness goes unrecognized by a national holiday. But whatever the decision, it is just plain insulting to King's memory and to people who revere him to refer to him as some sort of token, and to trivialize the attempt to memorialize him as yet another bizarre demand made by "those people." That is the sort of mentality King fought all his life. Maybe we need a day to think about it.