THE first observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a national holiday is still a year off. In 1986 it will become the 10th federal holiday, with states asked to observe King's career the third Monday in January. This week, a year in advance, two dozen states and 13 cities are already celebrating the civil rights leader's achievements, with many communities honoring him today on his birthday.
We wish we could comment that the King holiday represents the achievement of full harmony in American race relations. In the year ahead, however, there is more work to do to this end.
Politically, 1985 begins with clear accomplishments and continuing friction for blacks. A black in 1984 was a serious finalist for the presidential nomination. In the new US Congress, blacks will hold six of the standing committee chairmanships in the House, including the critical Budget Committee; this is almost 1 in 4 such posts, whereas the ratio of the 20 black representatives in the House as a whole is only 1 in 22. The black ratio in lower offices has also been rising steadily.
Unhappily, the other side of the political picture is a legacy of conflict between blacks and other ethnic groups, such as Jews, deriving in part from last year's political campaign, a black voting public sharply alienated from the Republican national ticket, and a black political leadership so one-sidedly in the Democratic establishment camp as to add to that party's image as captive of a few big interest groups.
On the job front, blacks still bear the burden of higher unemployment. In cities other ethnic groups, particularly Asians, are winning a larger share of coveted places in special educational programs.
In the South, where blacks live in great numbers, poverty has been growing again the past four years, according to Census Bureau statistics and regional studies. The economic boom that has benefited many Southerners seems to be accompanied by a growing number of the poor and jobless, a disturbing trend toward two different societies of haves and have-nots.
Community leaders in cities like Boston and New York are attempting to repair the strained relationships among blacks and other groups. And more generally, surveys show that the steady if inching progress in white attitudes toward blacks is continuing.
But much remains to be done in the year ahead to approach the equality and acceptance for blacks in American society that the slain civil rights leader envisioned. Observing the holiday alone won't do it.