THE Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have been 64 years old today. He might experience quite a range of emotions if he could look around at his nation today.
There would be despair, certainly, that America has come such a pathetically short distance toward equality in the quarter-century since his violent death.
But Dr. King might find joy in the discovery that, after a dozen years of neglect, the country had picked itself a leader who knows the score on racism and who apparently has a real distaste for racial injustice.
The man we honor on Jan. 18, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, still seems every bit the hero he clearly was. But he also seems further removed than ever from the reality of our lives. The nonviolence he once preached was a way of life for many people, a working strategy for others. But now it seems almost a quaint philosophy. Some of its strongest advocates from the 60s speak of it in the past tense now.
It's difficult to imagine what King would be like if he were alive today. Would he have run for political office?
Or would he be a graying statesman today, a wise senior citizen who still could bring congregations to their feet and presidents to their occasional senses?
Martin Luther King Jr. did help bring our newest president to his senses. The unselfish actions of King and thousands of other Civil Rights movement heroes created the atmosphere that allowed a white man with a Southern accent to avoid the racist route taken by generations of others who were drawn to politics. That movement, led by King 30 years ago, made it possible, or perhaps necessary, for Bill Clinton to start his term in office with a pledge to provide leadership that is as diverse as America.
Mr. Clinton is a member of the first generation of politically active Southerners who could see from childhood - and renounce publicly - the evils of segregation and racism. He was 7 years old when the Supreme Court delivered its school desegregation decision, 9 when Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi and when King and others organized the Montgomery bus boycott. He was 11 when he saw his own governor, Orval Faubus, heap dishonor on himself and his state by his display of shameful political racism at
Little Rock High School. Clinton was 13 when students not much older than he started the sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C.
Coming along when he did, Clinton was able to break the bond with our racist political heritage in a way equaled by no previous president. This includes Jimmy Carter, whose voice back then had not developed its present strength. (Clinton's experience also gave him a quality that few white politicians have - the ability to say "no" to black leaders. During the campaign, when Jesse Jackson made his stock demand of trembling fealty, Clinton firmly informed Jackson that he wasn't going on that guilt trip.)
None of this means that Clinton has an easy course ahead. In race relations, as in environmental, foreign, and domestic affairs, consumer protection, and every other area, the new president has the unenviable but exciting job of rebuilding a nation that, for a long time, has been run by people who hate government and distrust government's owners. The challenges are suffocatingly profuse.
For one thing, Clinton must cope with a relatively new strain of American racial discrimination that translates "a level playing field" into "special privilege," "redress of grievance" into "quotas," and "school desegregation" into "forced busing." Perhaps most alarming, we have developed an openness about our racism - as articulated by the likes of David Duke and Pat Buchanan - that is downright scary. Perhaps this is wistful nostalgia, but I yearn for a return to the time when most people were too asha med to act that way in public.
This new form of racism has been propelled to the surface by our hard economic times. It is easier to be against discrimination in employment when your own job is not in jeopardy. So undoubtedly Clinton's biggest challenge, as far as race relations is concerned, will be to separate discrimination from the economy. I have no idea how he can do it, but Clinton certainly seems intelligent enough to recognize that discrimination is a colossal drain on our national well-being. A financial consultant was quote d in the Washington Post last week as saying that disparate treatment of black Americans cost the nation's economy some $215 billion in 1991.
There is a prodigious accumulation of other challenges: What shall we do about the "political correctness" insanity? Can we somehow create an atmosphere in which people are naturally decent to one another, not because they fear punishment if they aren't?
What about the unpunished sins of the past - the lynchings and other injustices of the movement years and before? A new generation of Southern prosecutors is revisiting some of these crimes. Do we, as some advocate, let bygones be bygones. I think there are some crimes that cannot be pardoned. How quickly can Clinton restore racial equality to the courtrooms of the land, not to mention a Department of Justice that has disgraced its own name? Or to the classroom? Can this governor of a small, poor state s ucceed in explaining to lower-income whites that they are classic victims of our economically segregated system, along with those of darker skins?
Can Clinton take advantage of the unheralded but nonetheless abundant energies of people of all colors who are sick of a racially separated society? In the Southern rural area where I live, several interracial groups meet regularly, searching for answers to the most wrenching problem of our time. Thousands of others across this troubled nation are doing the same thing. Can Clinton tap into this? He seems to actually thrive on looking people straight in the eye and listening to what they have to say. This
is a novel quality in a president of the United States. Will it last? Given the complexities of an office that is traditionally isolated, and the plenitude of other problems that Clinton is inheriting, can it last?
Is all this merely wishful thinking at a time when two important events - the birthday of a true American hero and the most exciting change of the White House guard in a generation - are in conjunction? Should any sensible American retreat into the safe haven of pessimism and cynicism?
Perhaps so. But still I feel a pull toward hope. What made Martin Luther King Jr. a hero was his immovable belief in nonviolence and in the "creative tension" it produced. It was, he explained in 1963 to a group of critical white clergymen in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," a sort of tension that grabbed a stubborn, unyielding community by the ears and "forced [it] to confront the issue."
For many long years now, we have had plenty of racial tension. Precious little has been of the creative sort, and our leaders have refused to confront the issue, except when they exploited it for their own profit. Maybe now there's a chance that things will change.