King: `chaos or community?'

``WHERE do we go from here: chaos or community?'' This was the prophetic choice that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. posed to America in 1967 as the title of his last full-length book. It proved to be an ominous challenge, but he approached his subject with characteristic optimism and integrity. Framed by an era of great uncertainty, the issues he explored were bursting with sharply contrasting implications for the nation's future. The nearly 20 years since his death have witnessed a ``sea change'' in American life. But if he had lived, Dr. King might well have asked the same question today. The King legacy is, itself, a regenerating source of optimism and promise. He was gunned down by an assassin at the young age of 39; his life has become a testament to the principle that meaningful, progressive change can be achieved in one lifetime through personal courage, a passion for justice and equality, and a sustained call to collective action even in the face of great adversity. The public evolution of his views on the search for world peace, political and economic interdependence, fundamental human rights, and a call for freedom by the world's dispossessed is a mirror-image of the policy debates of today. Indeed, the message of Dr. King remains surprisingly contemporary.

His book was written to an America only newly awakening to the challenges and opportunities for a just society, but already torn by tremendous strains. The Voting Rights Act was only two years old; the Civil Rights Act was less than three; the ink had barely dried on the Executive Order 11246 barring employment discrimination in federal programs, and yet some had suggested that blacks ``had gained so much it was virtually impudent and greedy to ask for more.''

It is particularly fitting, in celebration of the first national holiday in Dr. King's honor, that we assess the status of civil rights and liberties, and respect for human rights, here in the United States. In a sense, these protections constitute King's living legacy. And although we have come upon a difficult period, the King legacy calls us to bring his vision to fulfillment.

At one time, this version of the American Dream was shared by many citizens. Even in the highest reaches of government an affirmative spirit emerged. In response to the call for justice, our national government assumed a major role in promoting equality of opportunity, and in protecting fundamental rights and liberties. If there is a touch of irony in today's recognition of Dr. King, it stems from a reversal of roles on basic rights issues by an administration which loudly professes its commitment to his legacy. In reality its actions are frequently wholly inconsistent with the principles of Dr. King.

Dr. King was undoubtedly a visionary, but even he could not have foreseen such a radical assault on hard-won rights and protections: Civil Rights

Several weeks ago, a new executive order was drafted for the President's signature. If signed into law, it would reverse decades of progress in ensuring equal employment opportunities for minorities and women.

Previously, the Reagan administration: opposed voluntary plans to end the effects of employment discrimination although courts had endorsed similar plans; attacked voluntary school desegregation efforts, despite congressional endorsement; and supported federal tax exemptions for racially segregated private schools.

The administration has done much more than impose its policy viewpoint on present cases and enforcement activities. It has systematically assaulted the very structure of the federal civil rights enforcement machinery through underenforcement and budget restrictions. The Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction measure may further hobble significantly crucial agencies and programs. Civil Liberties

In a variety of ways the administration is seeking to curtail public debate on matters of importance and to erode our right to be free of government surveillance. Human Rights

The US relationship to the protection of fundamental human rights in southern Africa continues to command our national concern. Only with great reluctance and under tremendous pressure did the administration impose limited sanctions on South Africa.

Innocent civilians are dying in El Salvador's civil war. Since 1979 approximately 50,000 civilians have been killed. Some Salvadoreans are fortunate enough to escape to the United States, but the administration insists on sending them back. The growth of the sanctuary movement suggests the extent to which the administration's failure to act on compelling humanitarian claims will continue to breed disrespect for the laws.

Where do we go from here? The answer is elusive and problematic. America is again at a significant crossroad of national choices. Solutions of the magnitude needed are never easily found. But, as Dr. King once remarked, ``only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.''

Morton H. Halperin is director of the Washington office of the National American Civil Liberties Union; Wade J. Henderson is its associate director.

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