The night before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, he said in a speech that he was not concerned about death because he had been to the top of the mountain and seen the promised land.

“I may not get there with you,” he said. “But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”

It seemed for a time in this country that we were at least in view of that promised land. We passed laws to end segregation, to protect people from being denied jobs and places to live on the basis of race. We made strides in civil rights not only for people of all racial backgrounds, but for people on the basis of gender identity and sexual preference.

However, as we approach Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2023, we see that we have a long road yet to travel before we reach his promised land.

Here in Maine, public schools and educators are under attack from groups that oppose teaching about racial injustice in our nation’s history. Increasingly, these groups are also focusing attacks on acceptance of LGBTQ communities and books in schools that are inclusive.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day comes on the heels of the second anniversary of the Jan. 6 attacks on the U.S. Capitol, in which white supremacist groups played a strong role. Fortunately, leaders of those groups and participants in the attacks have faced strong legal consequences for their actions, but the fact remains that we have taken a major step backwards.

Since 2016 and the toxic rhetoric of Donald Trump, we have seen a surge throughout the nation in open, brazen racism. We have seen immigrants used as easy scapegoats. We have seen women’s rights eliminated.

Why? Because poor leaders bring with them poorly behaved followers, and we have learned at some cost that many, many people in this nation are still mindless followers rather than free thinkers.

Bad leaders sow seeds of division and offer up scapegoats for problems. Their rhetoric seems so much louder than the calm repetition of logical, reasonable arguments.

Good leaders do something much more difficult. They bring people together around what is right, which is also what is hard. It is easy to become fractured and combative. It is difficult to set oneself to the hard work that must be done in a spirit of cooperation.

King was a good leader, and we fervently wish he was given more time on this Earth to help us forward. What we must contemplate on the day set aside to remember him is how we can each do our part to be good leaders and continue forward to advance civil rights for all and create an inclusive culture.

Without the distraction of the scapegoat mentality, we could work together to solve the challenges that face us all as humans, such as the threat of climate change and the need for health care coverage for all and investment in education.

We consider our mission to be part of the good work in our community of continuing to combat ignorance and promote thoughtful and educated conversations about the important issues.

Whatever our role in our local community is, we can all be thankful to Martin Luther King Jr. for inspiring us to be better and to continue to strive to reach the promised land.

The editorial board of The Courier-Gazette and The Camden Herald collaborate on an editorial regarding a topic of interest or community concern.