They knew that you cannot have a democracy in which some citizens are deprived of their most basic rights simply because they happen to be born with dark skin. They knew that a country that would deprive many of its children a good education or close off competition for jobs based on skin color could not stay for long the world's undisputed economic leader.
Changes might have come had Rev. King not mobilized his army of earnest men and women, young and old, black and white, but the pace would have been agonizingly slow and, perhaps, grudging. Without the reminder to all Americans -- especially those in the North who thought of themselves as more enlightened than their Southern neighbors -- that blacks were daily being subjected to degrading, inhuman treatment, many people would simply have chosen to ignore discrimination. They would have consoled themselves that, so long as they didn't personally hold prejudiced feelings, they were not responsible for the acts of others.
But Rev. King wouldn't let Americans off the hook so easily. Like Lincoln, he appealed to "the better angels of our nature." It was his unambiguous moral message that helped Americans change themselves for the better.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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