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The man we honor today

January 20, 2003

In the aftermath of the Trent Lott affair, the celebration of the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. takes on added meaning, because it reminds us that the issue of race is part of America's unfinished business. Making progress from this point will not involve passing more laws, but working harder to change hearts.

The civil rights laws that Dr. King helped to enact made race-based discrimination illegal, but didn't change the feelings of many about their African-American neighbors. Like some nudie magazine hidden under the bed, too many citizens have concealed their true feelings, because they know they're socially unacceptable.

The most pressing argument for changing those attitudes is that the U.S. faces terrorist enemies who don't care what race their victims are. And at the same time, all citizens face a national government that threatens to shred the Constitutional rights of some in the name of protecting the safety of all. It will take Americans of all races working together to combat these forces.

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We've heard the argument that the civil rights movement accomplished a great deal and that black citizens should just forget the bad old days and move on.

Consider this: Would anyone ask the Jews to forget the Holocaust or U.S. veterans to forget what Germany and Japan did in World War II? Of course not.

In both of those cases, much time has passed, but not enough that either group is willing to forget, especially when the forces of neo-naziism and anti-Semitism are still working their evil in the world.

Dr. King's antidote for evil was to use non-violent protest to remind the U.S. of the founders' ideals and challenge the citizens to make the words "all men are created equal" an American reality.

We have not reached the point he envisioned, where all men would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, but we are closer than we were in 1955 and we have his good example to follow.

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