But I'm not sure King would be completely happy with where we've found ourselves in the 60 years since. Racism still permeates our cities.
"All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again."
That's a prophecy from a science fiction show called "Battlestar Galactica," but sometimes I think it might be a prophecy for our world, as well.
In January, we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the federal holiday that celebrates the triumph of the civil rights movement. But I'm not sure King would be completely happy with where we've found ourselves in the 60 years since. Racism still permeates our cities. Social and economic inequality still is rampant.
On top of that, our national discourse currently seems to completely surround whether people of a certain religion should be barred from entering the country. Today's teens are growing up in a fractious and combative environment, one that resembles the rhetoric of the past rather than the promise of the future.
Can things be different?
Today's teens also are poised to be the first generation able to fully break the cycle that King opposed. That starts, not on a national level, but on a personal one.
Take the time to get to know people who are different from you. Don't stereotype people by their social group or their race. Instead, get to know the movies and music they like, the dreams they have and the things they like to do for fun. You'll find that they're a lot like you!
Don't participate in the nastiness endemic to public discourse. When people bully others, don't participate. Don't call others names and tear down their beliefs or thoughts. Instead, try to understand where other people are coming from.
When talking about controversial subjects, keep a cool head. Don't shout, even if others are angry. Getting angry shuts down discourse and solves nothing. It causes more problems.
Finally, remember King's central message, that all people are equal, and that people should be judged "not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." That goes for people who wear crosses as well as hijabs, unpopular kids as well as prom queens.
The holiday comes at an important time in our national discourse, as presidential primaries heat up -- along with candidates' rhetoric.
Don't believe it when people say a certain class or subculture is less than equal or not as important as another. That's the message of fear and hate that King tried to eradicate.
Real equality starts with you, with your attitudes, your choices and the way you choose to see and interact with the world.
It starts with you welcoming a Muslim student to your lunch table or inviting the unpopular kid who wears thrift-store clothing to your party. It starts with you telling other teens who call people racist or sexist names that they are wrong.
It starts with you learning about another culture, instead of ridiculing someone for their clothing, their food, what they eat for lunch, their accent or their skin color.
Are the things that happened before destined to happen again? If we don't learn from Martin Luther King Jr., the problems that he fought against will crop up, again and again, until good people work hard to eradicate them.
How many more Januaries must there be until we've learned our lesson? Which generation is going to finally break the cycle? Is it this one?
Karen Osborne is a columnist for Catholic News Service
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