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Were Martin Luther King alive in 2023 to celebrate his 94th birthday, what would he have to say about his nation’s contentious racial landscape?

America is a far different place from the nation that saw King felled by an assassin’s bullet in 1968 at the young age of 39.

The United States has seen an African-American serve two terms as president — something King likely thought even his children would never see.

Blacks routinely serve at the top levels of the Cabinet, on the Supreme Court, in the Senate as well as the House, as state governors. Indeed, race is no longer any barrier not just to the ballot box, but to elective office.

Here in New York, Carl Heastie became the first black Assembly speaker in 2015; Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the first black woman state Senate majority leader in 2019. And Brooklyn’s Rep. Hakeem Jeffries is now the first African-American to lead a major party in the US House of Representatives, poised to be the first black speaker.

Such achievements surely would cheer Dr. King, for it was all a long time coming. And it came about because the movement of which King was the public face fundamentally transformed America’s sensibility.

Born in the churches of the South, the civil-rights movement challenged white America to purge itself of racism. It did so through moral power, nonviolence, an appeal to faith, a call for civil disobedience of unjust laws and a plea for full equality.

King speaking during the March of Washington at the Lincoln Memorial.
King speaking during the March of Washington at the Lincoln Memorial.

King achieved his goals, not through coercion but by persuasion — and by demonstrating the all-too-frequent barbarity of those who sought to maintain injustice.

It’s no wonder, then, that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has entered the American pantheon for what he achieved in just 13 years on the public stage.

But he’d likely be dismayed, too, and not only by the injustices that remain. He would be pained by the fact that while young African-Americans are no longer barred from schools, they are too often denied a quality education — and so drop out or graduate without the knowledge and skills needed to become fully productive members of society.

We suspect he’d also by distressed by the hypersensitivity and growing political correctness of today’s discussions about race — the near-impossibility of honest dialogue and the insistence by too many to label any who disagree with them as racists.

He’d surely cheer the spirit and passion of the Black Lives Matter movement — but with some strong words about leaders’ obligations to bring discipline to every demonstration so as to avoid chaos and violence that badly undermines the cause.

A passionate supporter of Israel, he would be profoundly troubled by the abandonment of the Jewish state by many who were his allies and supporters.

He’d be pained, no doubt, by the fact that we have yet to fully realize his dream of a time when people would be judged solely “by the content of their character” and “not on the color of their skin.”

And, while hailing the beautiful prose of writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, he’d be saddened by their pessimism about the possibilities for true and full racial reconciliation — and likely appalled by the likes of Ibram X. Kendi.

For King’s was a universal message of equality and dignity for all: “Let us not see to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred,” he warned.

So we honor Dr. King for the goals he pursued and largely achieved — and for a vision the nation still strives to fully realize.

Yes, in the decades since his death, scholars have found that he had his flaws and frailties. To err is human.

Then, too, we nowadays largely idealize his crusade — forgetting the issues that made him even more controversial: his opposition to militarism; his denunciation of America as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today”; his warning that the greatest threat to black progress was “the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to racial justice.”

Ultimately, though, Martin Luther King’s legacy is that he managed to combat injustice by appealing to Americans’ highest aspirations. And that is why the nation rightly celebrates him today.

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