CAN IT BE that today's high school students are too young to remember when Martin Luther King Jr. was in our midst? Already there is a generation whose knowledge of Dr. King is a blurring recollection of someone in American history who spoke out against racial segregation. Only once in a while -- usually on or around this anniversary of his birth -- do television and the printed word bring home again the power of his voice and the impact of his message. Neither must be lost, because, as Andrew Young writes on the opposite page today, Dr. King's message "endures, spanning the seas and calling out to each new generation."

There are children of this city who remember firsthand that most famous yesterday -- Aug. 28, 1963 -- when the voice and the message boomed out from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, all about a dream. And they may remember a little bit more than just the "I have a dream" line; they may recall that this wasn't merely the dream of a black leader about civil rights. It was the dream of an American about his country, an affirmation of faith by a patriot who talked about some old-fashioned values -- such as letting freedom ring -- with new vigor and direction.

Dr. King's hopes for fundamental justice carried beyond his country's shores, too; during his 1964 visit to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, he shared his dream in an address to university students: "All that I have said boils down to the point of affirming that mankind's survival is dependent upon man's ability to solve the problems of racial injustice, poverty and war. The solution . . . is in turn dependent upon man squaring his moral progress with his scientific progress, and learning the practical art of living in harmony."

It can be, and has been, argued that a genuine recognition of Dr. King need not include making his birthday an official national holiday. But the sentiment for doing so runs deep, and it has become far more than a symbolic issue for many people. Such an honor, as Mr. Young notes, would transcend Dr. king's status as a black civil rights leader, because Martin Luther King spoke as an American about the spiritual liberation of all people. Declaring this holiday need not and should not set off a chain of calls for similar observances of narrower occasions, either. The honoring of Dr. King's birthday would constitute an exceptional, formal, national recognition of the goals for which he fought so bravely: humanity and justice, nonviolence as the means for achieving social change and compassion instead of hate for one's adversaries.