Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and although New Hampshire lawmakers once fought tooth-and-nail to keep it from being so, this is the 20th time the state has joined the rest of the nation in recognizing his importance with a holiday. The events of the past several years have made particularly clear that our nation is far from putting the issue of race in the rearview mirror.
As we have said on this day in years past, it is hardly necessary to document the impact Martin Luther King Jr. had on the lives and livelihoods of black Americans. When he organized the bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955, blacks were second-class citizens in every respect. They were routinely humbled in their day-to-day contact with whites. They were ridiculed in films, in advertisements, in television programs, and discriminated against in schools, in the workplace, in professional sports, everywhere but in their own segregated communities, which have since come to be referred to as ghettos.
By the time King was killed by an assassin just 13 years later, racial inequities still existed, but the entire nation had been made aware of them, and all the legal underpinnings of segregation and discrimination had been destroyed, to a great extent as a result of his leadership. Naturally, King is a hero to black Americans.
Yet, white Americans owe King an equal — if not greater — debt of gratitude. There was no possible justification for much of white America’s racial behavior before the consciousness-raising of the civil rights movement. That behavior grew out of a racism so ingrained that most people hardly even gave it a thought — racism found in the courts, in the business world, in the entertainment media, in every branch of government, even in churches. It would have been understandable if the country’s most prominent black civil-rights leader had turned out to be a revolutionary, out to destroy the society that systematically humiliated and preyed upon his people.
Instead, the United States was very lucky. At a critical time in our nation’s history, an advocate of nonviolence came along, able to channel the black rage and to raise the white consciousness. His weapons were the sit-in, the freedom march and civil disobedience — the latter, incidentally, was largely inspired by Henry David Thoreau.
Martin Luther King Jr. became one of his movement’s many martyrs. Today, his life’s dream is still far from being accomplished: “That this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’ ”
But he showed us the way. He showed us that we could work peacefully and constructively to resolve the country’s greatest and most persistent moral dilemma. For that reason, all Americans have cause to honor his memory and to make his dream their own.