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One of my favorite places in Washington, D.C., especially on nice, not-too-hot autumn days, is the great open-air mall between the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol. It was crowded Monday, with workmen installing seats and setting up TV screens.
That's when I saw him, sitting on a park bench, looking a little dazed. For a fraction of a second, I thought I knew him from somewhere. Then it hit me. And I grimaced. Now this was bordering on bad taste. A Martin Luther King Jr. look-alike, dressed in a dark suit with a narrow, 1968 tie, hanging out on the mall on MLK's national holiday.
I wondered what he was supposed to be promoting. I looked around for leaflets. He looked at me impassively, focusing those immense liquid, intelligent eyes. "I was given to understand that you would speak to me," he said.
"Well, you really have the look down pat," I started, but then stopped cold. A black woman and two children walked between us and looked where he was. They clearly saw nothing at all. All right. OK. I am in somebody else's play. Might as well try to get my part right.
"Do you know who you are and where you are?" He nodded. "Yes, in Washington, clearly. I know that you know who I am," he said, speaking deliberately. Nobody could fake that voice. "Do you know when this is and why you are here?"
Close up, I thought he looked much younger than he had on television; he had been, after all, only 39 years old when ...
When he was killed.
"What I know is that I was killed. Shot to death. What I want to know is what happened afterward. What happened to the civil rights movement, to my people, to America?
"They wanted to stop me. I told them the night before that we as a people would get to the Promised Land, but ... but ... did it happen?"
"Look, I am nobody very important," I said. "Just a journalist and professor from Detroit, with a background in history. I don't know why I'm the one to tell you this. But I can tell you that they did stop you. That is, a cheap drifter named James Earl Ray pulled the trigger. It took white America a while to realize how much they had lost. They were tired of civil rights and blacks and their problems, and that fall, most voted for Richard Nixon or George Wallace.
"But what James Earl Ray did couldn't stop black America. Nobody could stop what your generation started, once the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act had been passed. Wallace ended his political career begging for black votes. Birmingham, Ala., elected its first black mayor long ago."
"Do you know that this would have been — is — your 80th birthday?" He looked at me, thought a moment. "Jan. 15, 2009?"
"Well, no. I am sorry. We celebrate it on the closest Monday. Your birthday is a federal holiday now, Dr. King."
He looked embarrassed. "That isn't right. I wasn't perfect," he said. "I know. You mean your doctoral thesis and your personal life. It doesn't matter. Nobody is perfect. The day really is meant to honor African-Americans, all of them, by honoring you."
"Forty years," he said. "Forty years. How far have we gotten?"
I didn't blurt out the obvious. Instead, I said: "You mean, is today a holiday where America throws you folks a bone? Have you reached the Promised Land, as you said in that last speech? Is that the question? The answer is both farther than you ever dreamed and not nearly as far as you wish.
"In some ways things are still very dismal. Black families still make, on average, less than two-thirds the income of white families. Segregation may be illegal by law, but is probably worse than ever in fact, except in high-income, highly educated circles."
"Too many of America's cities have become desperately poor black ghettos. Detroit may be the worst of all. Drugs, worse drugs than existed in your lifetime, have wiped out large portions of several generations of black young men. Worse, there are crooked black politicians who steal from their own people and say they are victims of discrimination when they are caught."
"I saw that coming," he said, shaking his head.
"Wait," I said. "It isn't all bad. Maybe 10 percent of African-Americans have made it in society in a way hard to imagine in 1968. Look, if a black man became head of America's largest corporation tomorrow, nobody would pay very much attention, except maybe some society magazine. There are thousands of interracial couples and marriages. Almost no one gets upset at that any more.
"Look — most African-Americans don't like the current president of the United States. Few voted for him. But both of his secretaries of state have been African-American. One of them is a woman. He didn't do that for political reasons. He thought they were the best there were."
Martin Luther King Jr., shook his head. "I shouldn't ask this, but what do people think of when they think of me? Am I remembered as some old preacher who had his head blown off and that became an excuse for a day off work?"
"Not exactly," I said. "Kids read your 'Letter from a Birmingham Jail.' Forty-five years to the day after you gave what we call the 'I Have a Dream' speech, another young black guy gave another one that was nationally televised, on all the networks.
"Eighty million people saw it. And it was good. Damn good." I stopped, remembering that he was a preacher.
"Not quite as good as yours — I show your speech to classes and make them write as if they were covering it.
"But you know something? He started that speech with a sentence that you could never have said. Maybe never even imagine any black man saying: 'With profound gratitude and great humility, I accept your nomination for the presidency of the United States.'"
The apparition on the bench said nothing. Then, finally, struggling with emotion, he said, "What I wanted to know most of all is whether you've gotten closer to a society where people really can be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin?"
"I don't want to answer that, sir," I said. "That's not my place. You know what happens tomorrow, don't you? Inauguration Day.
"Tomorrow at noon, a brand-new president will speak to the world. I think he'll answer that. I think he already has. If you can stick around, in fact, this might be the perfect place to see it."
Back to reality: America has had fatally flawed presidents before. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were, in many ways, archvillains who did great damage to the country. Yet at some level they knew it, and spent an immense amount of time agonizing and suffering over their crimes. They were tormented by who they were.
Then this week, the worst president in our history left office, grinning and shucking mindlessly like the comic book character he most resembles. So hey, voters: I've made mistakes too. But — can you try to think twice before electing Alfred E. Neuman again?
Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.