On Martin Luther King Jr. Day we should honor all the people who labored to preserve the promise of America.

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Martin Luther King Jr. Day isn’t just a celebration, it’s a reminder of how much has been invested in the American experiment in democracy. Far too much for us to let it founder.

The country today seems so lacking in the resolve necessary to solve its many challenges — social, economic, environmental — that it sometimes feels as if we’re caught in quicksand.

I know, some people still say we’re that special place where solutions will always come along in time. If we are exceptional it is a result not of fate but of tenacious effort, and a little luck, too, but effort is the only part of that equation we can control.

Two people who contributed to that work, Gordon Hirabayashi and Robert L. Carter, died just after New Year’s Day. Reading about them reminded me that fulfilling America’s promise is a constant struggle, and that we owe a debt to those who carried the burden before us.

Hirabayashi died Jan. 2, at 93. He grew up in Auburn and was a University of Washington student when his government decided to gather people of Japanese descent — citizens or not — and send them to internment camps.

Hirabayashi was sentenced to prison in 1942 because he refused to get on the bus.

“We had constitutional rights. I didn’t think anything could happen to us,” he said at the time. He appealed his sentence all the way to the Supreme Court. He lost.

His refusal and that of others to tolerate a violation of their rights made a difference, stirring the country to reconsider what it had done long before Hirabayashi was officially absolved of any crime. His vindication didn’t come until 1987. Rights and freedoms erode unless citizens vigorously guard them, and we can thank Hirabayashi for doing more than his part.

On the third day of this new year, Robert L. Carter died. Carter, who was 94, was a leader in the fight against racial segregation.

His work brought tremendous change in this country, opening the doors of opportunity for millions of citizens. Carter’s list of accomplishments is long, but the work he started isn’t finished.

His biggest impact was working behind the scenes, helping craft the argument that in 1954 swayed the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education, the case that led to the abolition of legally mandated segregation in the public schools.

The law changed, but today schools are resegregating in Seattle and elsewhere. And more to the point, the central goal of Brown, that all American children should have access to quality education, is not yet a reality. Race and income still leave a large imprint on educational outcomes, and the country’s commitment to education in general is not what it should be.

Our own Washington State Supreme Court ruled Jan. 5 that the Legislature has not met its constitutional obligation to fund basic education.

Vigilance is still necessary on other fronts as well.

Carter helped do away with all-white political primaries in several Southern states. But over the past year, eight states tightened their voter-registration requirements in ways that drew the attention of the U.S. attorney general.

The states said they are trying to fight voter fraud, but it looks a lot like they are trying to pare down the number of minority voters before the November presidential election.

Some of the problems we face are long-running; some are specific to our time. Over the past year, the Occupy movement has called attention to economic inequality, something long a concern of minority groups and today a concern of the majority, too.

And some people are noticing a contraction in social mobility in the United States.

The New York Times, in a story Jan. 4, reported on several studies that find us lagging behind many other countries in fulfilling the promise that once defined America.

People who start out poor are more likely to stay poor than in years past. Some people of middle income do move up, but more of them move down.

Today, we can commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. and other past champions of justice and equality — and then figure out what we must do so future generations have something to celebrate.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.