I was 12 years old when Dr. King was killed in Memphis. Growing up in northern New Jersey, I remember the riots in Newark and other cities in the summer of 1967. I remember a neighbor inviting my father to join him and other vigilante-bigots in going to Newark to beat up any black person who might be unlucky enough to be targeted for such senseless brutality (Dad stayed home -- my parents were appalled by the violence but sympathetic with the plight of the Negroes. They didn't teach their children to hate, but they thought the civil rights protesters were pushing too hard, and hurting their own cause).
That fall, I started eigth grade and my homeroom teacher was Sister Eileen Marie, a sincere but baffling woman known by the derisive nickname "Fish" among the smart-mouths at St Phillip's School. Sr. Eileen Marie was very deeply involved in issues of social justice and racial harmony - but my hometown was lily-white and I really didn't get it. I thought she was more than a little bit nuts. Still, I was picking up the vibe of the times: it was tense, unhappy, and pessimistic -- would there be more violence? Were the prayers of Sr. Eileen Marie ever to be answered, or was God laughing her off like the kids in my eighth-grade class? Was it too much to ask - just too much change for America?
In the years that followed - as I completed my education and entered a more diverse world of work and of living in a much more integrated community than the one I had grown-up in - I came to understand a great deal about our long-troubled and profoundly and pathologically unjust experience with race in America. I read the history of the civil rights movement, and especially valued the three-volume work of Taylor Branch for its close rendering of the the details of that struggle, and of the role of Dr King.
When I think of great Americans, Washington and Lincoln come to mind, of course: Washington, for resisting the monarchical suggestions of his admirers and maintaining the republican ideal; Lincoln for his commitment to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the pragmatic genius necessary to protect those ideals; and King for changing the hearts of a nation and moving us forward, dramatically, towards the day when his dream of racial justice and harmony would become fact.
It may be hard for people much younger than myself to see it, but for me the change in American racial attitudes have changed dramatically since 1968. There's no doubt in my mind that we still have race issues in America, or that we still have a large problem with race-related social injustice. There's also no doubt in my mind that the advances in civil rights for blacks, women, gays, Jews and other Americans, are the legacy of a man whose conscience, courage, vision, oratory, and ultimate blood sacrifice won over the hearts and minds of the nation.
In 2008, now almost 40 years since Dr King was assassinated, I am grateful to a man I know mostly from books and film. King showed us the gap between our reality and our ideals, and inspired us to close that gap. Were he alive today, I think he would still be hard at work - but I think he would also agree with my view that we have come a remarkably long way.
Barack Obama is running for President, and his race is not an issue. Whether he will be "ready on day one", whether his health insurance plan should include a "Mandatory" provision, whether his Iraq exit plan is fast enough, and whether he is too moderate to fight the GOP -- these are the decision factors being weighed, and not the color of his skin.
Sister Eileen Marie's prayers have not all been answered, and the challenges of social justice are still before us, but in 2008 we have come so far that we can be optimistic about the tasks still ahead of us. I hope my own children will say when they are 52 that this noble cause advanced dramatically in their lifetimes.