"A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for him, in order to equip him to compete on a just and equal basis." -- Dr. King, Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community?
When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was alive, mainstream society viewed him mostly with fear and contempt. In response to King’s anti-war stance (as expressed in a 1967 speech), TIME magazine called King a “demagogue for Radio Hanoi.” Years later, Ronald Reagan the Great damned King as a near communist.
Today, however, a miracle has taken place in America: Dr. King was a conservative! By taking a snippet from one 1963 address Dr. King has been co-opted by the right as the most quoted opponent of affirmative action in America today.
While the transformation of King from communist to conservative is almost complete, it deserves an explanation.
It should come as no surprise that Martin Luther King, Jr. would have his words taken out of context. After all, King’s status today effectively ensures that writers, academics, pundits, and politicians will feel compelled to borrow King’s words to advance an agenda. What better political plum than claiming the ideological support of an iconic figure such as King? Nowhere is the tendency to “play the King card” more evident than in the claim by dozens of contemporary conservative writers, academics, pundits, and politicians that King’s basic goal was “color-blindness” and that he viewed such visual impairment as the road by which racism would best be addressed.
Typically, conservatives rely on one line from one speech. Of course it’s only the most famous line delivered by King, one of the few most folks have probably heard: the one from the 1963 March on Washington, the “I Have a Dream” speech in which he expressed the hope that one day persons “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” For conservatives, this is proof that King would oppose race-conscious policies such as affirmative action, since, after all, such efforts require an acknowledgment of race.
Conservatives of all colors and stripes have raised this line like a rallying cry in their war against “reverse discrimination.” Shelby Steele, for example, in The Content of Our Character (the title obviously used in order to evoke the famous King line) is harsh critique of affirmative action policies, claiming they have “done more harm than good” and implying that King would agree. Steele seeks to prove this not only with reference to the “Dream” speech, but also by recounting a 1964 presentation in which King implored black youth to get ahead: the implication being that King was an apostle of the myth of rugged individualism and hostile to special efforts to provide full opportunities for people of color.
In similar fashion, many other conservatives have misrepresented King. If you’ve been on the internet for any amount of time, I am sure you have run up against the now ubiquitous practice of the cutting-and-pasting of the Kool-Aid on King. See if you notice any of the following...
Clint Bolick, a leading critic of affirmative action, wrote in 1996 that King did not seek “special treatment” for blacks, and cites the “content of their character” remark as justification for his position. Tamar Jacoby wrote in 1998 that King’s “dream” was color-blindness. The Thernstroms, in the social science bible, America in Black and White, make the same claim. Paul Sniderman wrote, “the civil rights movement... took as its ideal a truly colorblind society, where, as Martin Luther King Jr. prophesied, our children would be judged... ” by, yup, you guessed it, you know what.
Some have gone further and have advanced the notion that the modern civil rights movement’s support of affirmative action is a betrayal of King. Dinesh D'Souza, in his the End of Racism, states authoritatively that affirmative action is a “... repudiation of King’s vision, in that it involves a celebration and affirmation of group identity.” He makes the bold assertion that Black leaders are the antithesis of Martin Luther King's principles, which he defines as the ideology that “race should be ignored and we should be judged on our merits as persons.” Strangely, D'Souza calls for the repeal of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, arguably the greatest legislative achievement of the movement King led.
Yet, despite the overwhelming noise by the right that Dr. King principally sought color-blindness and would have opposed affirmative action, even a cursory examination of his writings makes such a position extremely difficult to defend. King never said he believed that the best way to achieve the dream of racial and economic equality was to pretend racism had vanished. Nothing could be further from his principles. In fact, contrary to the popular modern fiction advanced by conservatives, King favored quotas, affirmative action, reparations, and race-based hiring as immediate relief from systemic racism. This is an unpleasant bit of history to those who have tried to turn him into a (safely dead) black conservative with which to bash liberals. But it was his actual views.
From the outset, King placed responsibility for the nation’s racial inequality squarely on whites. In an article written in 1956 and included in James Washington’s edited collection, Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., King wrote that whites had “rejected the very center of their own ethical professions... and so they rationalized” the conditions under which they had forced blacks to live. In his Letter from Birmingham Jail in 1963, King specifically criticized white ministers and white moderates, who he condemned for being “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice,” and whom he said were perhaps more of a barrier to true freedom for blacks than the Klan. This is the letter in which he famously wrote that an unjust law was no law at all. In short, King was hardly color-blind. He was clear as to who the victims and who the chief perpetrators of racism were -- and he said so in clear and forceful language.
It is true that King called for universal programs of economic and educational opportunity for all the poor, regardless of race. However, he also saw the need for programs targeted at the victims of American racial apartheid. King was even clearer on affirmative action. In a 1963 article in Newsweek (published the very month of the “I Have a Dream” speech), King suggested it might be necessary to have something similar to “discrimination in reverse” as a form of national atonement for the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow segregation.
The most direct articulation of his views on the subject is found in 1963, in his Why We Can't Wait, in which King noted:
“Whenever this issue of compensatory or preferential treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree, but he should ask for nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic. For it is obvious that if a man enters the starting line of a race three hundred years after another man, the first would have to perform some incredible feat in order to catch up.”
In a 1965 Playboy interview, King spelled out what that something special might entail, and it was far more substantive than affirmative action. In fact, King stated his support for an aid package for black America for $50 billion.
I am not saying that King's thoughts about this issue should be the determining factor on how people should feel about affirmative action or other race-conscious efforts. How they feel and think about the legacy and abiding problem of discrimination is up to them. No one should assume that simply because Dr. King appears to have supported such efforts that this necessarily makes King, and those who support affirmative action today, correct.
I am trying to point out how so many feel the need to link their views to King in an attempt to dismantle or disparage such programs. I find it the height of dishonesty and hypocrisy to claim the mantle of King's moral authority. Regardless of the debate over the effectiveness or legitimacy of affirmative action, it is only fair and just to insist that we present King’s views honestly and completely and not attempt to use his words for purposes he would have found unacceptable.