The 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., like previous anniversaries, will be used as a measuring stick. How far has America come from King’s era? How far must it still go to realize his vision of justice and comity?
It’s a useful exercise, but it also risks reducing King’s vision instead of enlarging it. The pursuit of justice has never been tidy or linear. It advances and recedes, pushed and pulled by political and popular engagement. In the moment, it can be difficult to tell which way the nation is headed. The presidency of Barack Obama was an extraordinary historical marker. It also engendered a backlash that helped elect his successor.
Donald Trump’s presidency, in turn, has helped to energize mass mobilizations on behalf of women’s empowerment and gun safety. Not all retrograde motion is self-defeating. Those young people who marched last month for saner gun laws owe a historical debt to King’s 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
That dream is easily rendered as cliché.
But it remains both inspiring and practical, and neither aspect should be discounted. King’s protests -- strategic, disciplined, dramatic and morally unambiguous -- created a vibrant template that is still used to spur collective action. King’s rhetoric, meanwhile -- “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” -- asks Americans to make a conscientious effort to elevate moral character over tribal allegiance.
King’s vision, rooted firmly in American history and aspiration, requires dignity for all, malice toward none. In 2018, with the U.S. polarized by partisanship, race, culture and wealth, it is a vision under constant threat.
It will always be important to measure personal and societal progress on King’s scale. But on the 50th anniversary of his death, the nation has a more fundamental and pressing task: to secure King’s vision of justice and mutuality at the center of American greatness.