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Martin Luther King's ideals still unfulfilled

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. greets people

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. greets people who came out to see him as he rides the ferry near Fire Island on Sept. 2, 1967. Credit: Newsday / Stan Wolfson

In an age when long-simmering racial animosities can combust in a heartbeat in the streets of a St. Louis suburb or in a war of words in New York City, it's easy to question whether we have made any progress in finding ways to live together amicably.

The life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which the nation honors today, provides a powerful reason for hope. His example says that even in the grimmest hours of the struggle for justice and racial accord, decency can win.

The recently released movie "Selma" amplifies that point. At the beginning of 1965, many Americans were weary of civil rights issues. They had weathered a bruising fight over passage of the 1964 Public Accommodations Act, which bars places like restaurants from excluding blacks.

But in Selma, Alabama, and much of the Deep South, the fight was always about more than the right to sit at a white lunch counter. Blacks in that region were fed up with the denial of basic freedoms -- like voting and the right to sit on a jury. Disenfranchisement left them starkly vulnerable to harassment, violence and death.

King launched an unlikely fight to change that.

On March 7, 1965, with the national media watching, his Southern Christian Leadership Conference led a voting rights march in Selma. No sooner had it started than local cops set upon 600 peaceful protesters in a bloody rout.

White America could no longer avert its eyes.

Five months later, the 1965 Voting Rights Act became law. Twenty years later, more than 6,000 blacks, including many in the Deep South, held public office. And today, a half-century on, more than 10,000 African-Americans hold public office, including the president of the United States.

When King was assassinated, he was planning a new march on Washington, to be called the Poor People's Campaign, that would advocate an end to poverty for all, black and white, to remind the nation there was still much work to be done for those who struggled to find decent jobs and build financial security for their families.

Today, this disparity in wealth is termed "economic inequality" and fixing it will be complex and difficult. But it's a challenge that must be acknowledged if we are to honestly honor King's memory. He knew jobs, education and economic advancement were very much tied to solving the justice issues that fueled the civil rights movement.

This April will mark 47 years since King's death in Memphis. What we know is that racial distrust has a long, mean shelf life -- and not just in the South. The past few months have proved that.

For cops on patrol in many parts of the country, the challenges can seem endless and the danger real, even if they are minorities themselves, such as NYPD Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos. And for people policed by these officers, the value of minority lives often appear to matter little to those with badges and guns.

King showed that no matter how deep the national chasm, we must keep on talking. Because without hope we're lost.