FOR MANY AMERICANS, the remembrances remain vivid, but the years are making a difference: though Martin Luther King Jr. would have been only 54 today, it has been nearly two decades now--time enough for an entire generation to reach adulthood--since that famous electrifying yesterday in Washington when the voice and the message boomed out from the base of the Lincoln Memorial, all about a man's dream. There was a magnificent clarity in this man's hopes and demands for justice, and if the full measure of his presence is lost on those born since, his vision should not be, because it is ever clear.

What gave that speech its lasting power was only in part the resonance of the speaker; there was force that made you want to speak along, to reaffirm a commitment to some old-fashioned values having to do with humanity and letting freedom ring. At that time, the evidence of ugly prejudice, intolerance and physical violence may have been far more obvious and prevalent in the land--but does anyone today suggest that it has all gone away?

Despite what he saw around him, Dr. King insisted on a faith that "unconditional love will have the final word in reality." At the same time, he made a distinction between pacifism and passivity, noting that solutions will come "when men develop the type of discontent which says, within, 'We will take it no longer!'"

The words were not merely those of a "black leader" about civil rights for people of color; the "dream" was that of an American for all Americans --patriotism at its finest. This is why the sentiment runs deep and arguments are strong for making Dr. King's birthday an official national holiday. Granted, the act of remembering Dr. King does not in itself require a holiday; nor should the declaration of this day as a holiday set off a chain of calls for more such observances for narrow reasons. The honoring of Dr. King's birthday has become far more than a s,mbolic issue for many people who see it as an exceptional, formal, nationwide recognition of the goals of his struggle and the hopes in his dream.

"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."