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January 19, 2004
The cadence of his speech was the most unforgettable thing -- we know our public figures by the things they say and the way they say them. The authority of his speech was such that he seemed much older than his 39 years. As a preacher myself, I respect his virtuosity in our craft more each time I hear him speak: I realize, now, that he never diagnosed or condemned without also providing a vision of how things might be different. Better. And so he reached into the heart right away when he spoke; we could afford to hear his indictment, because he also offered hope. Yes, the situation is grave and the injustice great, he said. But things don't have to be like this. We don't have to be like this. Our God-given destiny is better than this.

His beautiful young wife is no longer young, but she is still beautiful. She was strong, in those sad days, and quiet. Their children were so little. His parents were still living. That's when you realized how young he was.

It's a different country, thirty-six years after his death. Much improved: many more African Americans in political leadership, many African Americans prominent in American arts and letters, instruction about the racial history of America much more complete in American schools and colleges. Our laws are better. Education and income levels in African American families have risen in those years.

But it's not that different. Dr. King would still know where he was. He would recognize the sorrows that remain, and I think he would not be surprised that they are still here. If anything, what he called the "malignant triplets" of materialism, militarism and racism have grown in power: the third of these curiously, half underground and half brazenly out on the open, the second with frightening eye-for-an-eye zest, and the first most dangerously: Dr. King knew our materialism to be a moral soporific. We will cheerfully abandon our rights and skirt our responsibilities, approve almost any injustice, if only we can continue to have our things. Soothed by our possessions, we are willing to tolerate almost anything to keep them.

Make us worthy of the lives that have been sacrificed for us, the famous ones and the unknowns. Five hundred young Americans have now given their lives in Iraq believing us to be good, to be worth dying for. Some things are worth dying for, but a really hot SUV isn't one of them.
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