We have just passed through the most fruitful period of progress for black Americans since Emancipation. Beginning with the 1954 school desegregation decision, it lasted a quarter of a century. It produced many memorable figures. The verdict of history is still out on all but one.

Hereafter Martin Luther King Jr. will be judged a great man by many who will know little of him except that a national holiday commemorates his achievements. But the judgment of history is not so easily summarized. For some time to come we must wrestle with the content and the meaning of King's legacy. The struggle is already apparent.

As the King celebration began, the attorney general justified his attempt to eliminate hiring goals for minorities and women as "very consistent with what Dr. King had in mind," on the same day that the Rev. Jesse Jackson, speaking from King's home pulpit in Atlanta, excoriated the proposed policy for betraying King's goals.

Thus King is not likely to recede easily into the historical distance and become an icon like the only other American honored with a holiday, George Washington. Washington was the paradigm unifying figure, the first American of the new republic. King was a profoundly unsettling figure who challenged the republic from the time he emerged amidst the racial placidity of the 1950s. Yet King and Washington are not odd fellows thrown together by the fickle if democratic process that produces national holidays. Different as the two men were, they have been honored for the same reason. They managed to draw out the best in the American character. We honor them as an act of national conceit that is fully justified because the honor bestowed symbolizes our own striving to be as good as we sought to become when they lived. In today's racial climate, we need all that can be brought to bear through the symbolism provided by the King holiday.

Thus we honor King as the most appropriate way to signify that we are overcoming our own history. Race has been the single most tragic and insistent scar on an otherwise noble national undertaking. If the country has often met its baseline ideals, race has stood out for the way it has betrayed them. Inevitably the man most associated with racial accord would become a national hero.

If King's part in relieving the burden of race were all he had done, he would deserve a holiday. But his achievements go deeper. King was the most influential reformer in one of the most fertile periods of reform in American history. King was as significant to his period as John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were and, with the advent of the holiday, is likely to be a more lasting figure than either. King shaped the entire period of reform to which both of these presidents directly responded. Race was the anchor issue for King. But he moved to poverty and to war, teaching and leading in path-breaking ways, when many counseled him to stay within race boundaries. Nor did his early death end his influence on this period of restless reform. Every important movement of the 1960s and 1970s, from women to the environment, draws directly upon his philosophy or the social energy he inspired.

There has been much overwrought criticism of the unprecedented period of reform that characterized the last two decades. A time that produced less than it sought, it has been an easy target for those who sought -- and brought -- no change at all. But Americans North and South, right and left, have now closed in around King, the self-proclaimed drum major for justice of this period. The '60s and '70s were King's decades. In spite of ourselves, in honoring the great reformer, we have begun to accept the legitimacy of one of the most significant eras of American reform.