- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 16, 2005

The Rev. Martin Luther King’s sonorous and powerful preaching on behalf of equality, brotherhood and nonviolence has justly become a part of the American political canon.

In such documents as his “I Have A Dream” speech and “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he restated — at a time they badly needed restating — the founding principles of this nation as laid down in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

Dr. King may have been a visionary, but he was also an adept practitioner of practical politics, a point especially worth recalling in 2005, the 40th anniversary year of the Voting Rights Act. King called that law and the Civil Rights Act passed a year earlier “a Second Emancipation.”

Black voters had been effectively disenfranchised throughout most of the South by poll taxes, literacy tests, ambiguous standards of “good character,” economic reprisal and, when all else failed, violence. The nation was reminded of that when, just as the new year began, authorities in Mississippi charged a 79-year-old reputed Klansman for complicity in the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers. They had been in Philadelphia, Miss., to register black voters.

The power of the ballot put real muscle behind the civil rights law, and the U.S. Justice Department says the Voting Rights Act “is generally considered the most successful piece of civil rights legislation ever adopted by the United States Congress.”

Passage of those landmark 1964 and 1965 laws was due to an unlikely and uneasy partnership between King and President Lyndon Johnson, a Texan who as Senate majority leader had been closely allied with the Senate’s Southern power brokers.

The tale of that partnership is ably recounted in an important new book, “Judgment Days,” by veteran journalist Nick Kotz. His book reminds us America does have the power to progress, even if not as fast or as willingly as King would have liked.

Mr. Kotz writes, without exaggeration, that King and Johnson were “the indispensable leaders, in the right place at the right time to effect the end of legal apartheid in America. Without the synergy they created together, the outcome of the civil rights revolution would have been very different.”

King was assassinated April 4, 1968, at age 39. But his dream that one day Americans “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” endures as do the two laws that made that dream one day achievable.

Dale McFeatters is a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service.

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