King’s quest for a better America as relevant as ever

King’s mission to push America to live up to its own stated ideals of equality and justice remains vibrant.



January 17, 2022 - 11:07 AM

Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., left, sits next to Dr. William Anderson, D.O., in a historical photo.

Of the dozen official national holidays observed in the U.S. each year, the one being celebrated Monday — Martin Luther King Jr. Day — is the most relevant to today’s big national conversations. From continuing police reform efforts to the teaching of racial issues in schools to the voting-rights battle currently roiling Congress, reminders abound that King’s dream of an America that is just, fair and tolerant in its treatment of all Americans is still a work in progress.

King set the course for America’s racial evolution in the second half of the last century by highlighting racial injustice while eloquently presenting the case for civil rights to the nation. He won not only sweeping changes in the law — most notably the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which he called a “second emancipation” — but also in the attitudes of white America. That he spurred these tectonic changes while rejecting violent revolution, embracing instead an ethos of non-violent protest, is further credit to one of the most transformative Americans who has ever lived.

Nowhere is the urgency of King’s unfinished work more clear than in today’s debate over school curriculums. Usually referenced under the inaccurate catchall of “critical race theory,” it has become code for a conservative campaign to scrub discussion of race — and America’s history of slavery and racial discrimination — from the classroom. Some purveyors even quote King in their cause, twisting his famous call to judge people by their character rather than color as being somehow supportive of a gag order on teachers.

The epic fight in the Senate to protect voting rights today has different contours than it did in the Civil Rights Era — the goal of opponents is more partisan than racial, as they attempt to tamp down ballot access of those most likely to vote Democratic — but given the preponderance of Black voters in the party, the result is effectively the same. The GOP’s success so far at blocking the legislation has been primarily because of the Senate filibuster, the same tool segregationists like Strom Thurmond of South Carolina used in King’s time to stall civil rights legislation.

Polls show that majorities of white Americans recognize for the first time the systemic racism that has long been evident in policing. But reform has been slow, stymied in part by reluctance of police departments to cooperate with data-gathering efforts. The insulting absurdity of honoring Confederate traitors with statues is more evident than ever to many Americans today than it was even two years ago. But most of those statues still stand.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. talks with reporters outside St. James Cathedral parish house at 666 N. Rush St. in Chicago after a morning summit meeting on Aug. 17, 1966. The meeting was to discuss the city's racial problems.

In these and other current issues are the echoes of King’s mission to push America to live up to its own stated ideals of equality and justice. That mission isn’t complete — it may never be — but it remains a vibrant and urgent one.