Help keep MLK dream at forefront

The cover of this year’s January-February issue of Smithsonian magazine delivers the message “1968: The Year That Shattered America.”

Like Time Books’ 2008 publication “1968: The Year That Changed the World,” Smithsonian examines the 12-month period a half-century ago that many people who were alive back then continue to remember rightly as being more than just a year.

Rather, they liken it to an era — a very troubling era.

The cover of Time’s book carries reference to the unsettledness of that time, delivering the message “War abroad, riots at home, fallen leaders.”

Today honors one of those fallen leaders, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the chief spokesperson for nonviolent activism in the Civil Rights Movement, who was cut down by a sniper’s bullet on April 4, 1968, as he stood on the balcony of a motel in Memphis, Tenn.

The federal holiday Martin Luther King Jr. Day, commemorating King’s birthday, was observed for the first time in January 1986. Unfortunately, the holiday, despite being a fitting tribute to King, still, by itself, lacks the capacity to depict fully what he was able to accomplish in the battle against racial discrimination in federal and state law.

Nevertheless, today provides an important window for Americans to reflect on what this country might be like in 2018 if King and others who shared his determination had not been so persistent in their efforts — if they had backed away, rather than continue to work on behalf of their worthy cause.

Understandably, after King’s death there was logical uncertainty about what the future might hold. As it turned out, much would be accomplished over the next half-century in terms of making King’s well-documented dream of achieving racial equality reality.

However, that task still hasn’t been completed, and even some happenings in Washington last week allude to that.

Like Dallas, Texas, after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, Memphis and its residents dealt with shock and shame after King’s murder there. But the historian Michael K. Honey, author of “Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign,” told Ted Conover, who wrote the Smithsonian article, how Memphis was able to overcome its feelings of culpability.

Honey observed how Memphians replaced shock and shame with commemoration of King’s death as part of the legacy of the civil rights movement. Still, in his article, Conover remembers that some people alive 50 years ago, recognizing the terrible scope of King’s death, regarded April 4, 1968, as “the day hope died.”

Fortunately, hope didn’t really die, even though the ugly face of racism still reveals itself at times, as it did during that infamous confrontation in Charlottesville, Va., last year.

“The Memphis Strike” to which Honey refers in his book title was a Memphis sanitation workers’ strike that’s still remembered as an example of powerless African-Americans standing up for themselves — and King supporting their efforts.

Time’s book correctly observes that King’s assassination robbed America of one of its greatest moral leaders.

On this day honoring him, it’s appropriate to ponder what additional positive impacts King might have had — on the civil rights and other fronts — if his life had not been snuffed out so prematurely in that year and that era that many people prefer not to remember kindly.