IN A WAY this is a very discouraging season in which to honor the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose special holiday it is today. Dr. King was the apostle of reconciliation, as former Sen. Charles McC. Mathias observes in a piece on the op-ed page today; and he would at the very least be urging Americans to be thinking already of the enormous labor of reconciliation to be undertaken in the aftermath of the Gulf war. Proud as he would have been of the bravery and achievement of the black military personnel serving there and of their advancement through the ranks over the years, he would consider it a terrible failure that the carnage of war was not avoided, that the hostilities ensued after all.

Much that he would survey on the domestic horizon would be as disturbing. Enormous gains have been made by black people in the years since Dr. King was murdered, the fruit of their diligent, unending effort and of the gradual acceptance of his message and his dream by Americans of every color. But if he were to come back today, Dr. King would also see a revival of racial prejudice and animosities that threaten the very gains so hard earned over the years, and he would also see a degree of violence in the cities and among the young that would probably shock him. The statistics are terrible; the curves have gone in the wrong direction so far as these things are concerned. Every one of these senseless slaughters offends his memory, especially those that occur in wars among armed and often drug-disoriented children -- children who we have permitted to be, somehow, not equipped to deal with life, but equipped literally to kill other children.

"Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love?" he asked, and the "we" of that sentence should be enlarged to include all in this country who have an obligation to try to turn around the dispiriting new trends to violence and interracial hostility. Dr. King was on the side of progress, and there has been some progress. He was on the side of peace, and there has been some peace. But he would be the first to observe how far there is to go. "We need the vision to see, in this generation's ordeals," he once said, "the opportunity to transfigure ourselves and American society." He was -- and still is -- right.