Martin Luther King Jr: Architect of the 21st Century

With a single phrase, Martin Luther King Jr. joined Jefferson and Lincoln in the ranks of men who've shaped modern America

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Photograph © Dan Budnik / Contact Press Images

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Then there are the all-too-familiar failures. "In the past 50 years," the Urban League reports, "the black-white income gap has only closed by 7 points (now at 60%). The unemployment-rate gap has only closed by 6 points (now at 52%)." (Only at 100% will the gap have disappeared.) Overall, the racial unemployment ratio is unchanged since 1963, at "about 2-to-1--regardless of education, gender, region of the country or income level." These numbers, as well as enduring inequalities in the criminal-justice system and the recent Supreme Court ruling on voting rights, suggest that neither the march nor the movement is really done.

The end of Jim Crow did not mark the beginning of what John Lewis, since 1986 a Congressman from Atlanta, calls "the beloved community"--a philosophical ideal of a world that transcends racial, ethnic, economic and gender barriers and is suffused by love. "Citizenship and equality are broader conceptions" than civil rights alone, says Darrell Miller, a professor at Duke Law School. "The civil rights movement was about ending segregation but also about being able to enjoy the fruits of being an equal citizen in all aspects of life, both public and private."

On that August Wednesday, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial--the spot on which he stood is marked there now, a sacred slab hidden in plain sight in the middle of the capital of the most powerful nation the world has ever known--King drew from Scripture as he joined the ranks of the founders. In the beginning of the Republic, men dreamed big but failed to include everyone in that dream, limiting liberty largely to white men. Speaking in 1963, King brilliantly argued for the expansion of the founders' vision--nothing more, but surely nothing less. In doing so, a preacher from the South summoned a nation to justice and won his place in the American pantheon. "I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and every mountain shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together." He paused, then pressed on: "This is our hope. This is the faith that I will go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope." Transforming that hope into history remains the work at hand, this August and always.

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