This year's holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. seems an especially timely moment to reflect on his peaceful call for social justice. With protests across the country in the wake of the deaths of several unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers, it is useful to remember King's restraint in a much more turbulent time. His enduring example speaks to the positive nature of his ideals and America's capacity to change for the better.
The circumstances of the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in August and the choking death of Eric Garner in New York City in July are far different, but they underscored the simmering tensions in many communities between police and black residents. A half-century after the Civil Rights Act was passed, it still takes too long for all Americans to realize the right to equal opportunity. Many minorities understandably doubt the fairness of the criminal justice system. But the nation is more tolerant and diverse than it was in the early 1960s, and King's values are very much alive.
The fight for racial justice will always be a journey; what King presented was a choice between using violent means that serve only to put aggressors on equal footing and further divide us, or peaceful resistance that frames racial equality in human terms. The nation responded to King's message, and it resonates today across the globe, not because of paternalism or guilt but because the pursuit of life and happiness are elemental to human dignity.
A New Year's Day rally in Tampa reflected those values. Led by black clergy, the marchers walked from a church to a downtown park, where they called out racial discrimination and also prayed for the safety of police officers. The event included remarks from Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and police Chief Jane Castor. As pastor Tom Scott said, bridging the gap between the police and the black community cannot happen without hearing from both sides: "That's the only way it can work."
Today's holiday evokes many images, from the inspiration of King and the tragedy of his death to the new threats from violent intolerance in the world. But a holiday honoring a man slain as he campaigned for fundamental fairness has also evolved into a national day of service. Just as Americans are continuing to speak out for racial equality and peaceful expression, they are working on the front lines in our communities, paving the way to turn those ideals into reality. King's legacy is a gift and an obligation to each generation. That's the remarkable contribution to humankind that we celebrate today.