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Martin Luther King's success inspires us to keep trying

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Photo Credit: New York City politicians honored Martin Luther King Monday (Getty)

A question as Martin Luther King Day approaches: In an age when long-simmering racial animosities can combust in a heartbeat -- on a Bed-Stuy street, in a Staten Island shopping strip, or in a St. Louis suburb -- can we ever find a way to live amicably?

The odds don't always look so good.

But the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which the nation honors on Monday, provides a powerful reason for hope. His example says that even in the grimmest hours of the struggle for justice and racial accord, decency can win.

The movie "Selma" amplifies that point. At the beginning of 1965, many Americans were weary of civil rights issues. They had weathered a bruising fight over passage of the 1964 Public Accommodations Act, which bars places like restaurants from excluding blacks.

But in Selma, Alabama, and much of the Deep South, the fight was always about more than the right to sit at a white lunch counter. Blacks in that region were fed up with the denial of basic freedoms -- like voting and the right to sit on a jury. Disenfranchisement left them starkly vulnerable to harassment, violence and death.

King launched an unlikely fight to change that.

On March 7, 1965, with the national media watching, his Southern Christian Leadership Conference led a voting rights march in Selma. No sooner had it started than local cops set upon 600 peaceful protesters in a bloody rout.

White America could no longer avert its eyes.

Five months later, the 1965 Voting Rights Act became law. Twenty years later, more than 6,000 blacks, including many in the Deep South, held public office. And today, a half-century on, more than 10,000 African-Americans hold public office, including the president of the United States.

The point is this: Racial distrust has a long, mean shelf life -- and not just in the South. The past few months have proved that. For cops on patrol in many parts of the country, the challenges can seem endless and the danger real. And for people policed by these officers, the value of minority lives can often appear to matter little.

King showed that no matter how deep this chasm, we must keep on talking. Because without hope we're lost.

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