At the close of the last speech of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. might have had a glimpse of his destiny. He had come to Memphis in April 1968 to support to a strike by the city's sanitation workers, who were demanding better pay and working conditions. The night before his life ended, King took note of a storm passing through Memphis and reflected on his own mortality.
"Well, I don't know what will happen now," King told his audience. "We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."
Haunting words from a haunted time.
For those who recall firsthand the civil rights era and King, memories are vivid. In many parts of the richest and most powerful nation on the Earth, outdoor privies were still in use. There was a newly minted law against discrimination in employment, accommodation and transportation, but resistance to it was stout. Soldiers were dying in Vietnam and civil rights soldiers were dying in the old Confederacy.
The Civil War continued in the United States, north and south, and even in the ranks of a military that was engaged in a shooting war. For those who recall firsthand the era, it was a different world.
The paint on the "whites only" signs has only recently begun to fade. In that world we knew only 34 years ago, Trent Lott would never have suffered a moment's discomfort, much less disapproval, for a post-dated endorsement of Strom Thurmond's segregationist presidential candidacy. No apology would have been demanded, and even if there had been, there was no Black Entertainment Television network on which to offer it.
These days, "Colored jokes" are frowned upon by polite society. A politician can get in trouble over past transgressions, such as voting against adoption of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. People even criticize Tiger Woods for not using his influence to aid gender integration at Augusta National, the site of the Masters golf tournament.
You can't help but wonder sometimes if this was the other side that King saw from the mountaintop.
Could he have seen a time when even the Texas Supreme Court would have had two African Americans serve on it?
Could King have pictured a land where African Americans were beginning to climb out of the poverty that had held them hostage for so long? The most recent U.S. Census figures showed African American fortunes and educational achievement levels rising to record numbers.
Some people of both races are going to find that hard to believe. Because for all the facts and figures, there are strongly rooted perceptions. Race is such an emotional subject that you'll never convince an unsuccessful job applicant -- white or black -- that race didn't play a factor in rejection.
Blacks are still rejected for home loans in higher numbers than the whites or Hispanics with whom they can now share a restaurant. It also is difficult to ignore the phenomenon of resegregated schools and neighborhoods. That resegregation is real, whether a result of economics or will or both.
It is equally difficult to ignore the disparate numbers of African Americans caught in the criminal justice system's revolving doors.
Despite the long way we have come down the mountain, we still have a long way to go. Despite King's eloquent plea for a world where character counts more than color, we spend a lot of time talking about race matters because race still matters.
For all we know, this is the promised land. But it doesn't mean that the promised land would suffer from work to improve it. It behooves all of us, black and white, Protestant and Catholic, Jew and gentile to realize that a promise means nothing if not fulfilled.