Okay, I wasn't there, I didn't live through it, but it's pretty clear that in many ways Martin Luther King, Jr. lived in a different America--a different world--than the one I live in today. I overheard a student today wonder what King did "besides give speeches." Once I got over being appalled by the ignorance (well, okay, moved beyond it), I could see that at least to some extent, this was at least in part the usual sort of ignorance that the young are prone to: being unable to imagine the world being much different than it is now.
From this misconception, with only a vague notion of Dr. King's life, it might be easy enough to see King as little different than, for instance, a politician or other public figure today. He gave speeches, he inspired people, so what? What this young man fails, I think, to recognize is that King lived in a world where black Americans did not have the rights of white Americans; that King lived in a world where his protests could--and did--get him jailed, get his house bombed, get him harassed by the government, and draw death threats--and ultimately, of course, assassination. Nonetheless, he continued standing up for his convictions and his causes. So on that side of things, we have him as a man of strong character, which is always worth celebrating and holding up to inspire us all to be better, more heroic than we are.
Even more historically important, perhaps, is the way that King shaped the Civil Rights movement. Things were pretty bad, all in all. There was, throughout, a rather appalling level of violence, primarily from opponents of civil rights, but also from some of its proponents. Malcolm X, with his famous "Bullet or Ballot" speech exemplifies the other face of the African-American struggle, a militant face that would fight violence with violence. As I said--an appalling level of violence was already the order of the day: lynchings, police violence against protesters, riots, the Kent State shootings, and assassinations--King, Malcolm X, JFK, RFK, to name the most prominent. Now, imagine for a moment that, in that context, there wasn't Martin Luther King, Jr. or any other black leader of prominence advocating non-violence. Imagine what a world that could have become: more violent, more racially polarized, and no end in sight. Escalating violence gives you Northern Ireland, it gives you Israel, it gives you a world where acts of terrorism, acts of politically-motivated violence are common, still tragic, but something like normal, something like accepted. It gives you Iraq or Afghanistan.
We Americans live in a country where the September 11 attacks were shocking. We live in a nation where the shooting of a member of Congress is shocking and understood to be the act of a mentally-ill individual, not par for the course in a place where politics and violence go hand in hand. And we live in that country in no small part because of the influence of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This holiday isn't just to celebrate the historic achievement of the civil rights movement, it isn't just a time to celebrate the fact that racism has been greatly diminished, and it isn't just "a black holiday." It's a day celebrating a great man whose influence made America vastly better than it would likely have been without him. We all owe a debt of gratitude to him.