As despicable as Saddam may be, the selection of Jan. 15 as the day to end America's patience and nonviolence serves to highlight the fact that this nation has some pretty unpleasant traits too.

This is the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. Call today's deadline for Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait coincidental, if you will, but marring the memorial with ultimatums for war adds insult to injury.

For me, the insult is that in the 23 years since King died violently, America still has a painfully long way to go toward racial equality.

I know this because although nearly 30 percent of the U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf are black, more than half of the white people polled in a recent University of Chicago attitude survey still believe that blacks are less patriotic than whites.

I know this because the District of Columbia has proportionally more men in the Persian Gulf than all but three states. Yet, when the time came to vote on war resolutions in the U.S. Congress, the District was denied the right. Only the most naive among us now doubt that the reason the District does not have a vote in Congress is because the city is predominantly black.

I know this because the same president who vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1990 will give the order that starts the killing in the Persian Gulf.

Black Americans across the nation are still reeling from the effects of their participation in the war in Vietnam. In 1967 especially, a disproportionate number of black soldiers were being killed in Vietnam until King's protest resulted in a reduction of black troop deployment to the front lines. For black veterans wounded physically and mentally in the war, the city's thoroughfares have become their urban jungle trails from one soup camp to another.

As of today, that already pathetic plight of the walking wounded could get worse if war breaks out in the gulf.

With an impromptu call to arms by President Bush, a substantial part of the backbone of black America's working class has vanished almost overnight, shipped off to shed blood for oil.

These are men and women who love America with undying devotion, and they grit their teeth and bear insults to their race and patriotism with dignity.

Here are the comments a few of them made in interviews before reporting for duty not long ago.

"If the fighting starts, the brothers will be there," said Charles Woodard, an Army infantryman from the District. "Don't worry. We'll make the race proud."

"Nobody said the fight for equality would be easy," said Amy Robinson, an Army nurse. "I believe that you do the best you can and leave the results to God."

Richard Babb, a Marine Corps sergeant, said that he would give his life to protect the rights of a drug dealer.

"I make no distinction between Americans," he said. "If you live under the Stars and Stripes, protecting you is my duty."

"You can't always change the way people feel about you," said William Wells, an Air Force recruiter. "But when black and white are fighting side by side, saving one another's lives, perceptions change. Attitudes are changed forever."

Ernest Stewart, an Army corporal, says he joined the military to improve his chances of going to college, but if war does break out he is looking forward to nothing less than proving himself.

"Everytime I hear the Star-Spangled Banner, tears come in my eyes," he said. "This is the greatest country on earth. Fighting for her is one way to feel worthy of living here."

Doris Jones is an Army reservist who was shipped off to relieve regular troops on drug patrols in the Southwestern United States.

"My chance of getting shot by a drug smuggler is greater than being killed if I was in the Persian Gulf," she said. "But soldiers risk their lives for their country. It is admirable work."

These black men and women have answered the call and have put their lives on the line for America. These troops are part of an enduring tradition of black patriotism that reaches from Crispus Attucks, who led the group that precipitated the Boston Massacre, to the all-black 54th Massachusetts Regiment recalled in the film "Glory," to the Tuskegee Airmen and on to Gen. Colin L. Powell's ascension to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Despite the abhorrence of war by many black Americans, few see the black soldier as anything other than a sentinel of hope, living proof that they still believe very much in this country -- even when polls show that much of white America does not believe in them.