Today the United States commemorates the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., as it has done every year since 1986, when President Reagan signed a bill creating, for the first time, a federal holiday in honor of a private citizen.
On the day he signed the bill, President Reagan talked about King’s work to promote racial equality and about the strides our country had made to combat racial discrimination since the day Rosa Parks refused to ride on the back of the bus. However, he also reminded the American people that the dream of which King spoke had not been realized. His words, uttered on November 2, 1983, are as fitting today as they were then:
But traces of bigotry still mar America. So, each year on Martin Luther King Day, let us not only recall Dr. King, but rededicate ourselves to the Commandments he believed in and sought to live every day: Thou shall love thy God with all thy heart, and thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself. And I just have to believe that all of us—if all of us, young and old, Republicans and Democrats, do all we can to live up to those Commandments, then we will see the day when Dr. King’s dream comes true, and in his words, “All of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning, ‘… land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.'”
Traces of bigotry (and perhaps more than “traces”) still mar America – not only on racial grounds, but on the grounds of religion, gender and sexual orientation. It is fine to congratulation ourselves on the strides we have made, so long as we are honest in recognizing the ways in which we have failed and in the work that still needs to be done.
To say that bigotry still mars America says that bigotry still exists in our hearts. Thus, I think Reagan’s simple statement of the prescription for overcoming that bigotry is correct: love. Learning to love as God loves – unconditionally and universally. Reagan ended his remarks by talking about King’s goal “to create the love community,” saying that “Martin Luther King, Jr., and his spirit live within all of us…May we make ourselves worthy to carry on his dream and create the love community.”
May it be so.