The Dream and its Enemies

At the Richmond Theater on King Street in Alexandria, Va., I was cheerfully ushered into American complacency. ''Colored people" could go to the movies there, but they had to sit in the balcony.

Segregation so defined the social order that a white child like me was as unlikely to question it as he was to ask about the color of the sky. If I did ask, I was certainly told, ''It's the way things are." Later someone explained to me that Fats Domino's ''My Blue Heaven" referred to the segregated mezzanines of movie houses, and when I hear that rocking lyric even now, I feel a cold blast of shame. If it had been up to me, or the people I knew, would America have changed?

This nation honors Martin Luther King Jr. today because of what he forced on it. Recognitions that followed his challenge have taken on the character of rock-solid truth. Segregation by race is deeply wrong, and the institutions of government that supported it were indefensible. King's work freed whites as well as blacks from the prison of an inhuman perception, but, in fact, few white people ever came to see things as he did.

The outright racism of white supremacists was only one of his enemies; almost equally infuriating to King was the complacency of the vast majority of Americans that allowed inequality to thrive.

That is the point of my memory of the Richmond theater, where I first learned the power of, ''It's the way things are." Segregation in public accommodations was no outrage to me, and even once I began to grasp its injustice, I was simply incapable of feeling the insult as blacks did. The complacency of whites consisted in that distance from the transcending personal affront that blacks experienced every day. Eventually, people like me were conscripted into the civil rights movement, and we were privileged to regard King as our leader, too. We rejoiced at the passage of laws that began to dismantle structures of discrimination.

But even then, King stood apart. As rage against legal barriers to equality drove him in the beginning, rage against unjust economic systems, and inbred cultural attitudes, moved him in his later years. The great Washington demonstration for Civil Rights where King spoke in 1963 became, by 1968, the Poor Peoples March on Washington. At the first, King answered the question ''When will you be satisfied?" by calling for voting rights, the end of police brutality, and the removal of ''whites only" signs.

National complacency on such questions fell away, and a legal revolution occurred. But in preparing for the second demonstration nearly five years later, King called for nothing less than changes in the economic and social orders.

King would not be satisfied until reform had gone beyond the public reach of the law to the ways Americans made ''private" decisions about how they earned a living, what they did with their money, where they chose to live, whom they sought out as friends, what they wanted from love.

In truth, race was a defining line in all those realms, too, and if it was not confronted as such there, King knew, his dream would not be realized.

In honoring King today, America knows full well how far short the nation still falls of the vision he articulated. In the year that he died, a federal commission convened to examine the roots of urban riots declared that the United States was, in fact, two societies, separated by race. Nearly forty years later, that remains true, and it did not take Hurricane Katrina to show it. The effective segregation of schools is as stark as ever. Incarceration rates of African-American males are astronomical. Gunplay in cities overwhelmingly targets young people of color. An institutional triage writes off huge proportions of poor black youth. Among middle and upper classes, social interaction between the races is rare. Even as ''race" has been recognized as an artificial social construct at the service of a dominant class, it remains as much a marker of identity as ever.

Today we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr., but what would he say if he were here to accept the honor? In 1963, he decried all that had not happened in the hundred years since the end of slavery. It is nearly half that time again. Now, aiming the flamethrower of his rhetoric, King would surely scorch the complacency of a nation that still accommodates such injustice because, well, ''It's the way things are."

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