Getting closer to Martin Luther King’s dream

This Martin Luther King Jr. Day has a special resonance, coming as it does the day before the United States inaugurates an African-American president, a historic first that King helped make possible but one that perhaps even he didn’t dare dream possible.

King could have been on the platform, an honored American elder. He would have turned 80 last Thursday. He was only 39 when he was cut down by an assassin, shooting from ambush. You wished he could have lived to see the fruition of his dream, to know the beatings, the jailings, the truly vile abuse he endured has not been in vain.

In his short life, he left behind a sizable body of work — speeches, sermons and letters that are now among the great documents of equality and justice.

His "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" is a ringing defense of the need for good people to act in the face of evil, and for nonviolence in doing so. A group of local clergy had criticized the demonstrations he was leading against segregation, saying the timing was bad and urging him to wait patiently.

"We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed," King wrote. He added, "This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ … We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights."

He did not live to see that day, but the night before he died, in his justly famed "Promised Land" speech that seemed to foretell his death, King said God had allowed him to see the promised land. "I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land."

As Barack Obama looks out from the podium where he will be sworn in, he will see at the far end of the National Mall the Lincoln Memorial, where 46 years ago this summer King gave his most famous speech, "I Have a Dream." He dreamed, he said, when our children "will not be judged by the color of their skin but the content of their character."

Tuesday gets us a little closer to that day.