- The Washington Times - Monday, January 20, 2003

Martin Luther King Jr.'s ideas are as alive and controversial today as they were four decades ago, when he expressed them. Those ideas are alive because they are universal. They were not for one people, at one time, in one place; but for all people, anytime, anywhere.
In his Aug. 28, 1963, "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he expressed three vital concepts that defined the civil rights movement of that time: 1) "There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights"; 2) that his goal is for people "not to be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character"; and 3) "In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must for ever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence … [nor should it] lead us to distrust of all white people … we cannot walk alone."
We often marvel at the wisdom of our Founding Fathers. It is appropriate to pause and marvel at the wisdom of Dr. King. After all, the last 40 years of race relations in America could have turned out very differently and very much worse than it has. There were other voices aspiring to leadership of the civil rights movement. There were calls to general violence. There were cries for freedom tied to hatred of white people.
But Dr. King's nonviolence might not have won the day, had it not been invested with his sense of urgency. It is noteworthy that in that famous speech he started off by reminding us that the "Negro … had been seared in the flames of whithering injustice." He then asserted that America had "defaulted" on the promissory note of justice. And then he warned: "It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment and to underestimate the determination of the Negro."
Only then did he talk about nonviolence and individual rights. It wasn't enough that he preached nonviolence. He had to convince that nonviolence would succeed. He did convince. And he did succeed in ending legal segregation. The fuller blessings of justice, of course, remain a goal not yet fully gained.
It is in seeking the attainment of that goal that we see the continuing importance of Dr. King's teachings. Only last week in the affirmative action debate regarding litigation before the Supreme Court, we read and heard invoked Dr. King's famous goal to be judged on the content of our character, not the color of our skin. In that context, it is worth remembering one of Dr. King's other powerful messages: that we should all feel a sense of urgency in gaining for all Americans the fuller blessings of liberty.

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