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As Long as We Remember...

January 19, 2006

An American Foundation

Tony Soltero

Several years ago I underwent a complex and serious surgical procedure. While the prognosis was good, the outcome still depended upon the skills and dexterity of the surgeon. Luckily for me, he performed his work flawlessly. I was home from the hospital within a week, and it wasn't too long before my life was back to normal.

My surgeon was extremely well-respected in his field. This was especially apparent when I went into the hospital for pre-op. Every nurse and every health technician would ask me who my surgeon was, and when I told them, they would immediately respond, "You're getting the best!" The peace of mind that offered did wonders to reduce the inevitable stress that precedes any surgery, and mitigated what could have been a much more unpleasant experience.

My surgeon also happened to be African-American.

That, in a nutshell, is how Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy has benefited not just black people, but all Americans. And this is why we honor him, as a nation, every January.

Who knows if my extraordinarily skilled surgeon might have even had a chance to develop his abilities if Dr. King had not fought so hard for civil rights 30 years earlier? Would he have had access to education? Would he have had a quality mentor who recognized his potential early in life? Would he have been shunted off to a menial job as a teenager because of his color?

Would I have wound up with a different surgeon? How would my life have been impacted if he hadn't had the same level of skill, given the thinner talent pool that would have ensued if Dr. King hadn't helped break down the barriers?

But Martin Luther King, Jr., was not just about race. He was about justice for all Americans, of all shades of skin, of all textures of hair. Political justice, legal justice, and economic justice. He was a tireless advocate for the nation's poor, an effort which intensified in his later years (and is pretty much ignored in the traditional media's retrospectives of him).

He was a man of extreme and unparalleled courage. He had the guts to speak out against the Vietnam War when it wasn't yet "acceptable" to do so. He was roundly condemned by "liberal" media figures for his political incorrectness. The federal government harassed him for exercising his First Amendment rights. And he kept right on speaking and organizing. And, of course, his instincts were eventually proven correct.

He was a man of deep and intense faith, who preached a message of love, unity, peace, and inclusion. The contrast between Dr. King and today's "religious" spokesmen could hardly be more striking. Can anyone imagine Dr. King calling for the assassination of a foreign leader; or for the relegation of certain groups of Americans to second-class citizenship; or for the withholding of health care and education from poor people because they "don't deserve it?"

There is no denying that Dr. King's struggles have changed our nation for the better. Gone are the segregated water fountains. Gone are anti-miscegenation laws (isn't it revealing that there's actually a word for the practice?). Many African-Americans - and Hispanics, Asians, and others - have achieved great things thanks to the doors of opportunity opening for them, in large part due to Dr. King's efforts 40-odd years ago. Sadly, some of them (notably Clarence Thomas) seem focused on pulling up the ladder behind them, but for the most part there is a consensus among thinking, educated Americans that racism is no longer acceptable.

For all their high-horse lecturing of us on various issues, no European country has made anywhere near the progress on race relations that America has made, as painfully attested by the recent riots in France. And let's not even get started on Japan.

But for all of the real advances we have made, we remain far short of our ultimate goal - equality of opportunity for all Americans, regardless of color. Black and Hispanic Americans continue to disproportionately live in poverty, with dismal educational and employment opportunities offering few prospects for escape - a problem brought to the public consciousness, if (alas) only briefly, by Katrina.

Meanwhile, our current government underfunds public schools and slashes college student loans. Race-baiting by political figures continues in many parts of the country - much more subtle and coded than in the Jim Crow days, of course, but it's very much there.

Sometimes the mask slips, as we saw with Sen. Trent Lott (R., MS). Radio talk-show hosts openly fan the flames of scapegoating, if not outright eliminationism - whether it's against blacks, Hispanics, gays, immigrants, or any other "unpopular" group. The results are James Byrd and Matthew Shepard. So there remains a lot of work to be done; any politician or pundit who claims that we can roll back our civil rights laws because they're "no longer necessary" is either disingenuous or ignorant.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., felled by an assassin's bullet at age 39, helped lay the foundation for a better America - an America without internal barriers. Let us all honor his legacy by finishing the job he (among many others) started. As Stevie Wonder once said, "As many whites as blacks have benefited from Martin Luther King, Jr. His birthday is not a black holiday. It's a holiday for everybody."

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