Religious leaders look back on the civil rights activist’s contributions to American society.

During 13 years in the national spotlight, Martin Luther King, Jr., was greatly admired and vehemently despised by blacks and whites alike. He was regularly jailed, mocked, spit on, and threatened. But last month, nearly 18 years after he was assassinated, the American Baptist clergyman became the first black to be honored with a federal holiday.

Across the nation, celebrations of King’s birth were characterized by parades, fireworks, and flag waving. Some black leaders took advantage of the holiday to address civil rights issues of today. In Atlanta, South African Bishop Desmond Tutu said the leaders of the Western world have abandoned black South Africans in their peaceful effort to change that nation’s racial policies. Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, once an aide to King, said President Reagan’s visit to a predominantly black elementary school in recognition of the holiday was “hypocritical and unfair.” Jackson said the Reagan administration “stands against every principle Dr. King stood for.”

In 1957, King became the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization formed to oppose segregation in voter registration and public transportation. Inspired by India’s Mohandas Gandhi, King championed the philosophy of nonviolent direct action to effect social change. “Through violence you may murder a liar, but you can’t establish truth he said. “Darkness cannot put out darkness. Only light can do that.” In 1964, he became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

King lost many supporters by actively opposing America’s military involvement in Vietnam. He could not separate his position on Vietnam ...

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