Twenty-two years ago last week, our country wept at the loss of a great leader. Standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was preparing to go to dinner, when suddenly an assassin's bullet ripped through his neck.
Several days before his tragic death, Dr. King convened a staff meeting. He was a tormented man. For some time he had been agonizing over our nation's role in the Vietnam War. He was deeply troubled about our country's internal war on poverty and its lack of commitment to poor people caught in the boats stuck at the bottom.
He was also deeply worried about the division within the ranks of the civil-rights movement. I remember him saying, "Maybe I should return to my ministry full time or teach at a university." But then he paused and thought aloud for a moment about the great servants who had gone before him. People like Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Mahatma Gandhi. He simply said, "I can't turn back."
He then thought about fasting. He felt that maybe at his bedside the various factions within the civil-rights movement would come together as a unified body. Dr. King reflected on these dilemmas and said, "I must move forward."
In Dr. King's final days, I saw in him a man who was being attacked by friends and foes, but a man who did not surrender. He talked and prayed his way out of his depression. He refused to let his adversaries take his dreams and turn them into nightmares. He transformed those into stumbling blocks in his life into stepping stones.
As I reflect on Dr. King's last days, I can't help but wonder what he would think about where we are as a nation today. African American males and other minorities are overrepresented in jails and in prisons. Three million homeless persons suffer needlessly in the most advanced industrialized nation in the world. Our national debt is a disgrace. Eighty percent of the American people are paying more taxes for fewer services, while 20% of the population pays less taxes for more privileges. We are poised and ready to help rebuild other countries, but there is no such initiative on the agenda to rebuild our own urban centers.
In several Supreme Court decisions last year on economic set-asides and affirmative action--both of which help those who have been locked out to be let in--it is clear that the clock was turned back on combatting discrimination in employment and in other areas.
All of this might be expected from the conservatives, but some strange signals have emerged from the Democrats that give rise to some serious concerns. At the recent Democratic Leadership Council meeting in New Orleans, the group adopted an agenda for the 1990s that said in part: "We believe the promise of America is equal opportunity, not equal outcomes." My interpretation of this clause is that all people are on an equal playing field. I contend that the council's position ignores past and present discriminatory practices in our society.
It would do well for my Democratic brethren to remember what was said by President Lyndon B. Johnson, who defined legislatively what affirmative action should mean. Johnson, in addressing Howard University's commencement in 1965, said:
"Freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying now you are free to go where you want, do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please. You do not take a person who for years has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, 'You are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe that you have been completely fair. Thus, it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates. This is the next and most profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom, but opportunity--not just legal equity, but human ability--not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and as a result."
I think what President Johnson said was right then and I still think it is right today. That's the tradition in the Democratic Party with which I identify. Those who identify with President Johnson and honor Martin Luther King Jr. should not speak with forked tongues, but hold fast to their dreams.