Martin Luther King Day is more than a day of remembrance. It is an opportunity to turn again to the teaching of Dr. King and transmit his message to younger generations and to new peoples around the world.
As a preacher and a teacher, Martin Luther King talked to us about peace, equality and justice. But it has always seemed to me that at the heart of his philosophy was his call for reconciliation in American society: reconciliation between the races, reconciliation between rich and poor, reconciliation of society shattered by the Vietnam War.
A generation has passed since he helped to reconcile us with each other across these serious cracks in our society, and it is hard for many younger Americans today to understand the dangers that threatened us from such divisions. But the dangers were real, and the costs to society were substantial and could only increase with time if no remedy were found.
In fact, the reconciliation of the races, black and white, had eluded the United States for a century after the end of the Civil War. The Union had prevailed in war, and the Constitution had survived to be strengthened by the 13th and 14th Amendments, which abolished slavery and mandating the equal protection of the law.
But even living under such laws for 100 years had not reconciled American society to recognition of the necessity for equality in life as well as law. It was not for lack of voices urging the fulfillment of the promise of the law that we had failed to reach that goal. Many eloquent appeals had been made by blacks and whites during the entire century since the Civil War, but little progress was made. It was not until Martin Luther King "had a dream" that anything approaching a reconciliation was actually attained.
But Martin Luther King's vision extended far beyond the reconciliation of black and white to many other fissures in society. It would be wrong to claim total success in any, let alone all, of these efforts. The important element of the message that is timeless and universal is the need for a conscious, committed attempt at reconciliation wherever and whenever it is needed.
Unfortunately, there is no prospect that the need for reconciliation will ever be eliminated from the human agenda. As new disputes arise within and between nations, there will be a necessity for reconciliation between the parties to the conflict.
The crisis in the Persian Gulf is a case in point. Feelings and emotions are exacerbated by the fact that different people see events from different points of view. The immediate parties to the dispute look at it through the lens of their self interest and rage at their enemies' lack of vision. Gulfs of perception of even the same facts prevent the antagonists from any common understanding of the situation. Tempers flare, and threats and personal abuse fill the air.
Yet for all this, even the hotheads will admit in moments of reflection that enemies today are seldom enemies forever. Changing interests or alteration of circumstances make the difference, and the enemies of yesterday become the allies of tomorrow. Reconciliation becomes not only a very real possibility but a historical certainty. It behooves us, therefore, to dig the hole today no deeper than it has to be, knowing that we are going to climb out of it one day.
In the spirit of reconciliation taught by Martin Luther King, we should avoid exacerbation of our disagreements so that tomorrow will be easier for us. This is particularly true of parties dragged into the Gulf vortex by reason of geography and cultural affinity, who have otherwise been our long-term friends.
In this context I think particularly of Jordan, which has been a pawn of fate from the beginning of the crisis. At the other end of the scale, we should remember that we once befriended Iraq because it challenged Iran, just as we once were in league with Iran to hold Iraq and other front line Arab states in check. It is not hard to draw the conclusion that national interest may dictate international relationships, and common sense requires that we erect no unnecessary obstacles to such association.
In the spirit of Martin Luther King we should begin the reconciliation with Jordan and other peripheral players as soon as possible after the crisis has passed and keep in mind that reconciliation with the bitterest of enemies may in the future not only make sense, but be a practical necessity. Moreover, such a realization may be a guide to our conduct day by day.
The writer, a former Republican senator from Maryland, introduced the bill that made Martin Luther King's birthday a national holiday.