THE SIXTIES live on in a sort of historical No Man's land. The slogan and tactics of that decade seem dated to many, but we are not ready to relegate the period to some collective historical unconscience. We are particularly unwilling--or perhaps unable--to confine the image of Martin Luther King Jr. to some library slot between Andrew Jackson and Robert Lowell. Despite the tragic slaying of the civil rights leader in 1968, Americans tomorrow will commemorate a man whose teachings are still relevant and, if we are lucky, very much alive.
King is rightly honored for his landmark achievements in the field of civil rights; his leadership in the Montgomery and Birmingham boycotts, his influence in drafting the 1964 Civil Rights Act, his compelling appeals for equal rights that reached a stirring peak in his "I Have a Dream" speech at the 1963 March on Washington. These victories have been noted at length and should continue to be trumpeted loudly.
King's special relevance this year, however, is less the nature of his achievements than the style and spirit of his leadership. While courages and revolutionary, King's activism was a healing one. He called on all Americans to rally to the struggle for civil rights and simultaneously rejected, at a not insubstantial cost, pressures from more separatist elements of the Black community.
The recent election has proven only too well that the concerns of Blacks will only be served if they are properly understood as the concerns of all. Blacks rejected President Reagan almost unanimously, but were still powerless to block the re-election of a man whose policies have been shown to weigh most heavily on minorities and the poor. Bouyed by a white backlash against affirmative action, this Administration has successfully stymied, or even reversed, previous efforts toward nondiscriminatory hiring practices. Blacks cannot hope to reverse these trends without white support, but neither can whites hope to enjoy a peaceful society if they ignore the alienation and violence bred by such injustices. King never failed to underscore the interconnection of the causes of all segments of society; while the current problems faced by the Black community differ substantially from the explicit legal oppression of the sixties, King's call for a cooperative and inclusive activism still offers a valuable model for political leaders of all races.
Writing of John Kennedy's assassination in his book, Why we Can't Wait, King said, "We were all involved in the death of John Kennedy. We tolerated hate; we tolerated the sick stimulation of violence in all walks of life; and we tolerated the differential application of law, which said that a man's life was sacred only if we agreed with his views. This may explain the cascading grief that flooded the country in late November. We mourned a man who had become the pride of the nation, but we grieved as well for ourselves because we knew we were sick." While we mourn Martin Luther King Jr., we must also work to heal our still-ailing society.