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Remembering M.L. King and nation's obligations

January 19, 2004

It has been 36 years since the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the American civil rights leader. Since his death in April of 1968, a whole generation has grown up in a country that he and his movement changed forever - and for the better.

Many young people today cannot imagine that in their grand parents' lifetime many states had official policies that barred African-Americans from entering schools and other facilities paid for in part with their tax dollars.

Using the philosophy of non-violent protest developed by Henry David Thoreau and later practiced by Mahatma Gandhi, King and company changed America from a land where the color of one's skin mattered more that the content of a person's character.

But it it is not enough to remember King, although that would be better than treating today as just another holiday. His son, Martin Luther King III, said in 2002 that remembering is appropriate, but not celebration, because there are still too many people in need of food, decent shelter and training that would allow them to earn a living wage.

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American is undoubtedly a more affluent society than it was in 1968, in large part because the civil rights movement allowed many who were disenfranchised to become educated and to join in firing up the U.S. economic engine.

That happened because the country did the right thing back in the 1960s, albeit reluctantly. Had he lived, King would have told us that we have an obligation to share our good fortune.

There are many ways to do that, from acts of personal kindness to large bequests. Citizens might also embrace causes like the effort the shelter Hagerstown's homeless in a program that gives them job training and counseling as well as a warm place to spend the night.

Some of these causes are unpopular, because people don't want to confront them, just as many didn't want to confront the true effects of the policies of racial discrimination.

But as uncomfortable as it might be to lobby for them, it won't mean risking one's life, as King did, to make this a better world and a better America.

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