TODAY, ACROSS the country he embraced so lovingly, Martin Luther King Jr. will be remembered on his birthday for the inspiration he generated among Americans. Each year this celebration takes on more meaning, because today's newest adults and all who have been born after them cannot sense in quite the same way the context of those moments when Dr. King walked a too-violent land with a message of nonviolence and demands for justice. The intolerance, the physical abuse and the stark injustices of that time are now pages in the schoolbooks and scenes to be witnessed in film clips; what was ugliest and what has faded since subsided in no small part thanks to Dr. King, his dream and what that dream awakened in America.

His message transcended racial differences in understanding. Though nonviolence was fundamental to his creed, Dr. King did not rule out tension. On the contrary, he preached the value of "having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood."

Impatience had a place in his scheme, too: "For years now I have heard the word 'Wait!' It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This 'wait' has almost always meant 'never.' success meant joining hands, not vying for a new racial pecking order.

So the celebration is not one limited to people of color; everyone owes Dr. King for a rich legacy. As for that dream, that's all it still is -- but not an impossible one. This is a moment for people of the country to reflect on that dream and to rededicate themselves to it. "I refuse to accept the idea," he said, "that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality."