More than thirty-six years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, it's still common to think of his commemorative day as a sort of ethnic holiday--an acknowledgement of the particular suffering and protracted struggle of African-Americans in achieving formal recognition as full citizens.
But even a cursory understanding of King's ministry and public career shows otherwise. He had every opportunity, and every justification, to limit his message to one of racial grievance, but he didn't. He could have rested on his laurels once the worst injustices of southern segregation had been overturned, but he wouldn't. He might have retired from the Christian ministry to become a politician, or retired from civic activism to become a religious leader, but he never did, and never would have even if his life had not been cut so short.
What Martin Luther King did as effectively as anyone in our history was to hold up the civic and religious values of America and demand that his country, its institutions, and his fellow-citizens live up to them. And he held up a mirror and forced us to measure ourselves by what we pretended to believe. For all his eloquence and strategic and tactical leadership, that remains his most important legacy today, for all of us.
He didn't just play a crucial role in the liberation of "his people." As a white southerner, I am convinced he helped redeem me, and "my people" as well. And as a Christian, I am sure he helped redeem our faith community from decades of passive, and sometimes active, defiance of the Gospels.
We are at another time in American history when it would be useful to compare our contemporary civic life with our professed ideals, and our religious life to the divine commandments of selflessness, peacefulness, mutual respect and love so many of us claim as the center of our lives. In memory of Martin Luther King, we should pause a moment today to hold up a mirror, and again measure ourselves by what we pretend to believe.