01/14/2011 01:27 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Reflections on Martin Luther King Day

On Martin Luther King Day, it is appropriate to pause for reflection.

At a time when racism and anti-Semitism are alive and well on the streets and on the Internet, when anti-immigrant activists are spewing vile nonsense about "job-threatening, crime-producing, disease-carrying undocumented aliens," when homophobia remains a potent obstacle to the achievement of equality for gays and lesbians, and when anti-government paranoia is growing on the extremist fringes of our society, it is appropriate to wonder about what Dr. King would think if he were alive today.

Given Dr. King's passion for equality, for civil rights, for freedom, and for hope, would he be discouraged? Given his commitment to fighting hate and his insistence upon nonviolence, would he be dismayed?

Maybe, but I think not.

Maybe Dr. King would be discouraged and dismayed by a nation many see as being seriously divided and polarized. He would probably be disappointed that more of our leaders have not spoken out in support of civility and against vitriol in politics and public affairs. He would likely lament the harsh rhetoric which dominates some segments of our airwaves -- the talk shows that have made unrestrained rage a popular form of entertainment. After all, he once wrote -- very presciently -- that "like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away at its vital unity. Hate destroys a man's sense of values and his objectivity. It causes him to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful, and to confuse the true with the false and the false with the true." The latter is happening all too often today.

And yet, the outpouring of support for the victims of the tragic shootings in Tucson -- across the political spectrum -- has been heartwarming. The Americans killed and wounded in Arizona were obviously not responsible for the toxic messages poisoning our national debate. But maybe, as President Obama suggested in his remarks at the University of Arizona, the tragedy will provide an impetus for us to "expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together."

Yes, Dr. King would certainly find cause for optimism and hope. Since he was taken from us so suddenly 43 years ago, we have made substantial progress on basic issues of equality, civil rights, and freedom. We have made huge strides in eliminating discrimination in employment, in education, in public accommodations and in housing. We have elected an African-American president. Not so long ago, our divided, polarized Congress passed major hate crimes legislation expanding existing law to include protection based on sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, and disability. And last month, Congress repealed a discriminatory "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy which unfairly discriminated against gays and lesbians seeking to serve in the U.S. military.

Our society is not without its flaws today. While polarization and anger continue to plague us, and serious divisions remain in our nation, we can still appreciate why Martin Luther King, Jr. had faith in America. There remains in this nation an abiding belief in fairness, in justice, in freedom and in democracy.

This year especially, and as we remember Martin Luther King, Jr. and honor his good works, we owe it to ourselves and our country to heed the president's words: "We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another, that's entirely up to us."