The memory of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has never had more urgent relevance than it does today. America is at a crossroads moment, much as it was when he was murdered.
Five days ago, President Bush marked the boundaries of the national crossroads by escalating the war in Iraq and recommitting himself to "victory." Five days before King's death in Memphis, Lyndon Johnson gave an equivalent speech to the nation, although with an opposite purpose. The date was March 31, 1968.
Like Bush, Johnson was presiding over a lost war. He had recently replaced his secretary of defense. On one side, the American people were making plain their disillusionment with the war. On the other, hawks were urging the president to expand bombing and increase troop levels for the sake of "victory."
Unlike Bush, at the critical juncture, Johnson said no to escalation. He suspended bombing. He renounced military victory in favor of a political solution, proposing negotiations with the enemy. He underscored his seriousness by removing himself from any possible candidacy for re election. For a brief few days, the cloud of political despair lifted from America.
Not for long. The Saigon regime, for whom the United States was fighting, would prove as recalcitrant as the communist enemy. Johnson and his successors would keep the war going -- ultimately for years. But far more immediately, King's assassination on April 4 took away the nation's hope, with broader and darker consequences than anyone imagined.
Progress toward civil rights for all citizens faltered, remaining incomplete even until today. But King had been one of the first to insist that racial justice was impossible without economic justice, and that goal, if anything, is even further from fulfillment.
The disgrace of US poverty, now necessarily seen in the context of a globalized economy, is a footnote to the smoldering catastrophe of world wide disparities between rich and poor. Cities, especially in the southern hemisphere, teem with desperate people, and no system of authority or organization seems remotely able to respond.
If the 20th century seemed a time of capitalism's ascendancy, the new century seems an era of its certain self-destruction. Expect the mantra of "Socialism!" chanted last week in Venezuela to grow louder. And socialism, compared with the possible anarchy, is benign.
But racial injustice and poverty are inextricably linked to violence. That is why non violence formed the evolving center of King's vision. It was no mere tactic with him, a way of coping with racist sheriffs who had guns. Non violence was a defining affirmation of the value of life, and it was the practical engine of a powerful political movement.
King's was one of the main voices to which Johnson was responding when he sought to lead the nation out of war. 1968 is recalled as a year of hated turmoil, but first it was a year of rare illumination: Racial justice and economic justice depended on peace. King was the first American to speak that triple truth to power, and for a moment, power seemed to hear.
Today, the war in Iraq is both a symptom and a cause of the chronic disease of US violence. Bush feeds the virus, and it infects every organ of the body politic. King would be appalled at the way guns now shape the hopelessness of young black men. But King would name the link between gun supply in American cities and the flood of weapons pouring from a global arms industry across the most impoverished regions of the world. Indeed, poverty has become the ground of global violence, and terrorism is its poison flower. What King and Johnson knew as the war on poverty has become an all-but-declared war on the poor. Washington is its headquarters.
Martin Luther King Jr. is held in precious memory because he made an alternative world seem possible. He spoke of a dream, but he mobilized a pragmatic program for change. Idealism, in his terms, was the height of realism. Thus, healing between races, the lifting up of the socially downtrodden, and the amelioration of all that made for violence were not three items on King's agenda, but one human project.
We honor King today not as a way of recalling the past, but as a way of resuming his campaign in the present. A dream, yes. But equally a three-sided political movement. No racial justice without economic justice! No justice, period, without peace!