On the first observance of Martin Luther King Day as a national holiday in 1986, President Ronald Reagan's proclamation included these words: "Dr. King's activism was rooted in the true patriotism that cherishes America's ideals and strives to narrow the gap between those ideals and reality."
It's instructive to follow Mr. Reagan's comments with some words from Dr. King himself, words that identify the quality of thought most needed to truly close that gap: "When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality."
Political "reality," the way a society works, and "ultimate reality," the way God works. The two are not unrelated, as King's life work showed. His Christian faith was the bedrock that underlay his social activism - giving him the spiritual strength to persist until the first reality moved a little closer to the second, higher one.
King's work has never been more relevant than it is today. American society has left the institutional superstructure of racism and bigotry behind. But racial tensions are all too tangibly with us.
The national debate over the uses and possible abuses of affirmative action too often exhibits those tensions. Discrimination still haunts some work places. Political rhetoric too easily invokes racial stereotypes.
What would be King's response to today's environment, with many black Americans prospering, while others still languish in poverty? How would he help bring Americans together in useful dialogue and action?
He'd almost surely stress the moral and spiritual underpinnings of all genuine reform, and repeat his insight that the recording of a law can't be treated as "the reality of the reform." The laws, by and large, are in place. The reality - manifest as fair treatment of people regardless of race - has to emerge, ultimately, in the hearts of individuals.