It's not too hard for me to remember the first half of the 1960s - the years when Martin Luther King Jr. was spearheading a movement that would transform America. Or at least begin that transformation.
I was a teenager growing up in a very sleepy Central Valley town in California, far from the glitz of the coast and the cities. Far from any black people, for that matter, though we did have a large Mexican population, most of whom toiled in the fields and occupied the social space reserved for the descendants of former slaves in other parts of the country.
I have foggy, black-and-white memories of dinner times with Huntley and Brinkley reporting on the turmoil in the South - turgid, ghastly, almost otherworldly pictures of black protesters being beaten with nightsticks, tossed by jets from fire hoses, and lunged at by dogs. How did I fit this with the picture of my country I had been sketching since the first time I'd recited the Pledge of Allegiance in grade school? In 1964, I would stuff local door handles with ``Goldwater for President'' fliers, following the prevailing political currents of our town. I had friends whose parents firmly believed that J. Edgar Hoover belonged in the White House.
But there was that face on the TV screen, almost every night it seemed. A black man who seemed somehow above the turmoil, though he was in its vortex - causing it, many would say with a note of revulsion. I didn't really know how to react, and I'm not sure anyone else in my family did either. The South seemed a foreign land, and the events there foreign to our sense of the country. But that man on the TV wouldn't let it rest with that sense of distance. His words bridged the distance. They couldn't be ignored by any American - whether they enraged, inspired, or just worked their way into consciousness and started a slow process of self-examination.
``I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.''
Those words still hang somewhere in the stratosphere of thought, honored but all too rarely grasped and lived by. The black power activists who rose to prominence after Dr. King wanted no part of them. Skin color was central to their thinking. Today, ironically, King's words are more likely to be seized by conservatives wanting to roll back affirmative action than by liberals mulling how to reignite civil rights as an issue.
But political labels and leanings have little meaning in the arena framed by those words. King was animated less by ideology than by ideals - the ideals of equality and freedom embodied in the founding of the United States and the fundamentally religious ideal that nonviolent means empowered by faith would prevail. It's on that level - all the later revelations of personal failings notwithstanding - that he takes his place in the pantheon of great Americans. His dream was profoundly, and in the best and most universal sense, American.
Such analyses didn't enter my teen-age thinking back in the early '60s. I just watched, wondered, and felt instinctively that something important was going on. Then I got on to wondering who would win the high school football game next Friday. Yet the underlying feeling of transformation was tangible, even in the rural backwaters of America.
I have some of that same feeling now, thinking about that time -
but the feeling is not fixed in that time. It streams into today. Matters of race and ethnicity are more open and pervasive than ever. Diversity is celebrated - when it's not disparaged as a synonym for cultural decay. Demographers tell us the country will become progressively more black and brown as the next millennium proceeds.
That may bother some people, but what does it matter if those words - judge by the content of character, not the color of skin - take hold? But can they ever take hold, for King's children and grandchildren or my own, until the faculty of judgment itself shifts from what the senses tell us to what spiritual sensibility tells us - that there's infinitely more to men and women than meets the eye?
Maybe that's what so struck me about that man on the TV screen over 30 years ago. He was onto an issue even bigger than the rooting out of racist laws and customs. He was doing his part to help save the whole race.
* Martin Luther King Jr. Day is Monday, Jan. 16.