What Clinton Owes to Martin Luther King

Article excerpt

THE Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have been 64 years old today. He might experience quite a range of emotions if he could look around at his nation today.

There would be despair, certainly, that America has come such a pathetically short distance toward equality in the quarter-century since his violent death.

But Dr. King might find joy in the discovery that, after a dozen years of neglect, the country had picked itself a leader who knows the score on racism and who apparently has a real distaste for racial injustice.

The man we honor on Jan. 18, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, still seems every bit the hero he clearly was. But he also seems further removed than ever from the reality of our lives. The nonviolence he once preached was a way of life for many people, a working strategy for others. But now it seems almost a quaint philosophy. Some of its strongest advocates from the 60s speak of it in the past tense now.

It's difficult to imagine what King would be like if he were alive today. Would he have run for political office?

Or would he be a graying statesman today, a wise senior citizen who still could bring congregations to their feet and presidents to their occasional senses?

Martin Luther King Jr. did help bring our newest president to his senses. The unselfish actions of King and thousands of other Civil Rights movement heroes created the atmosphere that allowed a white man with a Southern accent to avoid the racist route taken by generations of others who were drawn to politics. That movement, led by King 30 years ago, made it possible, or perhaps necessary, for Bill Clinton to start his term in office with a pledge to provide leadership that is as diverse as America.

Mr. Clinton is a member of the first generation of politically active Southerners who could see from childhood - and renounce publicly - the evils of segregation and racism. He was 7 years old when the Supreme Court delivered its school desegregation decision, 9 when Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi and when King and others organized the Montgomery bus boycott. He was 11 when he saw his own governor, Orval Faubus, heap dishonor on himself and his state by his display of shameful political racism at Little Rock High School. Clinton was 13 when students not much older than he started the sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C.

Coming along when he did, Clinton was able to break the bond with our racist political heritage in a way equaled by no previous president. This includes Jimmy Carter, whose voice back then had not developed its present strength. (Clinton's experience also gave him a quality that few white politicians have - the ability to say "no" to black leaders. During the campaign, when Jesse Jackson made his stock demand of trembling fealty, Clinton firmly informed Jackson that he wasn't going on that guilt trip.)

None of this means that Clinton has an easy course ahead. In race relations, as in environmental, foreign, and domestic affairs, consumer protection, and every other area, the new president has the unenviable but exciting job of rebuilding a nation that, for a long time, has been run by people who hate government and distrust government's owners. The challenges are suffocatingly profuse.

For one thing, Clinton must cope with a relatively new strain of American racial discrimination that translates "a level playing field" into "special privilege," "redress of grievance" into "quotas," and "school desegregation" into "forced busing." Perhaps most alarming, we have developed an openness about our racism - as articulated by the likes of David Duke and Pat Buchanan - that is downright scary. …