TODAY, UNDER the umbrella of the Corporation for National Service, women, men and children in the District and across the nation will transform a holiday into a day of service in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. They will distribute food, help senior citizens, paint homes and clean homeless shelters. "Everybody can be great," the Rev. King said, "because everyone can serve."
These King Day activities highlight the transformation of America 71 years after the birth of the great civil rights leader. Instead of going off to segregated schools in Atlanta, young people in that city will be attending a youth summit and engaging in community service projects. They will face none of the legal barriers that greeted a young Martin Luther King. Because of the historic movement that he led in the '60s, civil rights laws are on the books.
But King Day 2000 is also a reminder that Martin Luther King's dream of one America remains only that -- a dream. Jim Crow laws have been struck down, but discrimination is alive. Equal opportunity laws are in place, but disadvantages based on race persist. And today marchers will rally at the South Carolina statehouse to urge the removal of the Confederate flag. That there are still people in South Carolina and elsewhere who cannot or will not see the flag of the old Confederacy as a heritage of slavery and a symbol of a bitter and costly fratricidal war underscores the enduring nature of this nation's racial dilemma. Instead of allowing race to continue exacting a toll on the state, South Carolina should strike those colors and follow the fine example set by Virginia Gov. James Gilmore, who has proposed a new state holiday honoring Dr. King.
Today's problems do not begin and end with race. Community service events scheduled for this King Day also accentuate the economic divide between Americans who have and those who have not. Last week Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan observed that "the American economy as it stands at the beginning of a new century has never exhibited so remarkable a prosperity for at least the majority of Americans." He was absolutely right. But it's also true that in the midst of this prosperity some Americans still go hungry.
As the Rev. King prodded Americans when he was alive, so this holiday should prompt the nation to reflect on both the blessings and imperfections of our union -- and on what might be done to make it better.