The legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. stymied the democratic presidential campaign last week.




Back and forth comments between presidential hopefuls Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-New York, and Sen. Barrack Obama, D- Ill., regarding race cast a negative pall over party energy built with strong turnout in Iowa and New Hampshire.




We never learn. When mud is tossed, everyone loses.




Clinton, opened the door with a strange reference to King and President Lyndon Johnson. She then scrambled to reframe her statement with little success. Obama's staff jumped into the fray with a list of alleged racially insensitive quotes by Hillary and her campaign. Bill Clinton, who of late seems a bit frayed, joined in. More than one radio talk show host and cable news pundit accused both candidates of "playing the race card."




What exactly is the race card?




Wikipedia defines the term race card as an "idiomatic expression referring to an allegation raised against a person who has brought the issue of race or racism into a debate, perhaps to obfuscate the matter." It is also a metaphorical reference to a game of cards in which a player trumps all hands by serving up the race card to gain advantage.




Actually, in the three-day brouhaha, neither candidate played the race card, though discussion as to whether Clinton denigrated the legacy of MLK proved a popular topic. Her comments, while maladroit and a bit self-serving, were never disparaging of Dr. King. Obama, to his credit, has insisted that his candidacy is about issues, not race, asking voters to judge who among the candidates is best prepared in philosophy and ability to take the nation forward.




Of course, race has permeated our nation's history since the abolition of slavery and the days of reconstruction. Racism has continued to haunt us and is, in many ways, our national shame. Purging racism and discrimination from our courts and institutions, from our very social fabric, has been a century-long struggle, which is still ongoing. Race may still factor into Obama candidacy in a general election. Michelle Obama candidly voices concern for her husband's safety, despite his Secret Service protection. We need only recall King, President Kennedy or his brother Robert to share her concern.




We know there are those among us, still, who dwell in the darkness of totalitarianism and spewing the rhetoric of racial purity. Many are isolated, others gather in groups under a red and black flag, a replica of the broken cross that hung above the Nazi Bundestadt. Some wear white hoods and stand before burning crosses recalling a time when they could act with impunity.




Though this is no longer the America of "whites only" drinking fountains and blacks forced to the back of public buses, remnants of that time are with us still.




Last Septemer in Jena, La. a black high school student sat beneath a tree apparently reserved for whites. Three nooses appeared hanging from the tree shortly thereafter. Later, six students were arrested for the beating of a white schoolmate and charged with attempted murder. Tens of thousands converged on Jena and protested what they interpreted as the racist prosecution of six black youths known as the "Jena 6."




The nooses spurred national discussion of their symbolism and use as a means of intimidation. From 1880 to the early 1960s, some 4,700 men and women were lynched (not hanged; the distinction is important) in America, of which 70 percent were African-Americans. As reported in the New York Times, since Jena there have been as many as 60 noose incidents across the country, symbols of an abiding racism that resists all attempts at amelioration.




"The level of hate crimes in the United States is astoundingly high &

more than 190,000 incidents per year, according to the 2005 Department of Justice study," reports the Times. The number of hate groups, according to the annual count by the Southern Poverty Law Center, has increased by 40 percent in recent years, from 602 groups in 2000 to 844 in 2006.




The events in Jena, and the rippling aftermath, reveal a simmering and ever-present racism that we must still, as the man we honor today said, struggle to overcome.




Because Obama could be the first man of color elected to the highest office, his bid for the presidency will be seen by many through a prism of race. But hopefully, the collective voice of the electorate, of all Americans, will resoundingly reject any mention of the race card, in whatever form it may arise and choose the best man or woman for the important job of rebuilding America that lies ahead.