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King's legacy best seen through the gospel's lens

What sense, 30 years after his assassination, are we to make of the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King?

Seen on history's international stage, where he takes his place alongside Mohandas Gandhi, King's nonviolent struggles were against racial bigotry and discrimination, against war ã specifically Vietnam ã and increasingly, as his assassination approached, on behalf of the poor.

In the United States, King and his colleagues, black and white, fought against overt social and legal racism and for racial justice and equality. The racist ethos of the group, the family, the individual, King believed, could eventually be dissipated through education, understanding and the inculcation of tolerance.

That transformation is still underway but far from complete.

King's appeals were always to gospel understanding. Even when the white, liberal pastors of white churches in Montgomery, Ala., did not support ã while not openly opposing ã his bus boycott, King believed the tide would turn in time.

And in many ways, over the past three decades, it has.

Though there were still lynchings in the South when King was born, he was under no illusion that racism in these United States was merely a Southern phenomenon. As he remarked after a 1960s march from Marquette Park in Chicago, people from Mississippi could visit Chicago "to learn how to hate."

Thirty years later, King has his own holiday in January and the symbols of overt social and legal racism are pretty much gone. The "whites only" and "colored only" signs are gone; school districts can no longer openly declare that certain schools are for blacks only; employers and real estate agents and landlords all know the language of equal opportunity. At least, there are some laws and language to lean on.

But under the skin of those legalisms, the monster of racism still breathes and gathers strength.

The distinctions between overt and subtle must mean little to the child in the inner city, whose playgrounds and public housing hallways are incubators of crime and whose schools are mere shadows of the facilities a few miles away in the suburbs. Legalities must mean little to kids who know their schools might as well hang out a "blacks only" sign, who see the undeclared but very real disparity in resources as unmistakable racism, even if the law doesn't see it that way.

On a more personal level, guffaws over racial jokes have turned to quiet giggles. Subtle racism, like any social or class bigotry, is conveyed by the faintest of signals between willing parties. The barest flicker on the face, the slightest semaphoring from body language and the message is transmitted ã and received. It is also received by the victim, the butt of the joke. Nature and the need to survive has endowed humans with powerful antennae. Rarely does the racist signal pass unrecorded by the sufferer.

Overt racism cannot be mistaken, cannot be avoided. Subtle racism can slip by the innocent, especially the child, unless otherwise educated to recognize and condemn it.

The letter of the law must be little consolation to the innocent African-American who is, on the basis of skin color alone, followed around department stores and made to empty the contents of pockets and purses.

How far apart we remain is embarrassingly evident in our congregations on Sunday morning, a time King said is "the most segregated hour in Christian America." Pluralism may be taking hold in spots as we worship, but most local churches remain identifiable by racial and ethnic composition.

Racism, though perhaps tamed in its rawest elements in the past three decades, is still being taught and practiced.

King's life and death make most sense when viewed through the biblical lens he himself used: hopeful in what we can already claim through Jesus of Nazareth, while understanding that total fulfillment of the promise of unity and accord remains out of reach. The perspective of 30 years reminds us that the work for justice is long-term, and that it will take more than most Americans seem yet prepared to give.

National Catholic Reporter, January 16, 1998