Now is the time. That's the way Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) put it in l979 when he called for an official holiday on the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. But the response of the Congress was: not yet.

Jimmy Carter said it too, when that same year he became the first president to endorse passage of the holiday bill. But the response of Congress was: not yet.

Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) has been saying it since l968 when he introduced the first holiday legislation, as has the Congressional Black Caucus, as have millions of black and white Americans. Always the answer has come back: not yet.

But the time is now. The time, in fact, is long since past due.

The opponents have made their voices loud and clear. Four years ago, the House tried to substitute a Sunday celebration, refusing to give federal workers an extra day off or extra pay. When the Virginia General Assembly passed a King birthday bill after some deft maneuvering by the state Senate's only black member, then-governor John Dalton vetoed the bill, saying King "had been honored enough." Later, the state tried to couple King with 70 other "notables" for a Notables Day. One legislator commented that a state holiday " . . . considering his causes and what he believed in . . . would be dishonoring the nation," and others have protested that the holiday would cost too much.

The intellectual absurdity of similar attitudes was once tackled by writer Lillian Smith, who described the failure of her fellow white Southerners to recognize their racial responsibility this way: "We think we are a free people but we have lost our freedom to question, to learn, to do what our conscience tells us is right. . . . How can a person fight Communist dictatorship and surrender himself to the dictatorship of an idea like White Supremacy?"

Martin Luther King was a Nobel Prize winner and a friend of the poor who believed in the rights of all Americans. His spirituality and compassion, his teachings of the redemptive and transforming power of nonviolent protest touched profoundly those with enough love to respond, much like those qualities in his inspiration, Gandhi. King was more than a black American leader. It's true that his courageous nonviolent championing of brotherhood and peace in the civil rights revolution made him a Moses, a special hero to blacks, but he ignited a moral spark as well within whites with good intentions, decency and morals, who understood his teachings.

King's concern for humanity has made him honored by men and women all over the world. That is why his gravesite has become a shrine that draws many world leaders and ordinary citizens to Atlanta to pay their respects. Declaring a King holiday would be a tremendous signal to the majority of the world's peoples who are nonwhite that this powerful nation can honor one of its own who symbolized an ideal of peace and brotherhood and has earned a rare place in world history. Had he lived, King might have been the international figure the world needs today--a leader of broad scope who can deal with the precarious fragility of today's world.

A King holiday also would be a tremendous boost for black Americans, who in recent years have fallen on disconsolate times. Budget cuts and recession, cruel and unfair labeling and persistent racism have assaulted the purses of most and the pride of many.

To those who cry that the holiday would cost too much money, I ask, how does one go about computing fiscally the impact of the leader of the country's greatest social revolution?

Entertainer Stevie Wonder has set the right tone in his campaign to make King's birthday a national holiday, by deciding to halt the marches and move to the national legislative arena. To this I would only suggest that it also might be time to shift this movement back to the states as well. The pressures that need to be put on members of Congress wobbling on this issue must come from their home districts. Eighteen states, as well as most major cities, now honor King with holidays or days of observance. If enough other cities and states, acting on a state-by-state basis, declare the holiday, even the wobblers will be toppled.

Now is the time.