Paul Rockwell, The Right Has a
Dream: Martin Luther King as an Opponent of Affirmative Action,
In the last years of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s
life, many mainstream journalists and conservative politicians treated
him with fear and derision. In 1967, Life magazine (4/21/67) dubbed
King's prophetic anti";war address "demagogic slander"
and "a script for Radio Hanoi." Even years later, Ronald
Reagan described King as a near";Communist.
Today, however, a miracle is taking place:
Suddenly, King is a conservative. By virtue of a snippit from one 1963
address"a single phrase about "the content of our
character""King is the most oft";quoted
opponent of affirmative action in America today.
"Martin Luther King, in my view, was a
conservative," right";wing media critic David Horowitz
declared on Crossfire (9/5/94), "because he stood up for, you
know, belief in the content of your character"the value
that conservatives defend today."
In the Washington Post (4/26/91), Charles
Krauthammer pitted King against diversity. Progressives, he writes,
"have traded King's dream for something called diversity.... It
is the opponents of race";conscious public policy who today speak
in the name of values that King championed."
The National Review (3/20/95) trashed affirmative
action with a cover story depicting a black kid, a kid with a Mexican
sombrero, and a white girl happily climbing ladders, while two white
boys fall down "the slippery slope of quotas." The lead of
the article: "The civil";rights movement has strayed far
from the color";blind principles of Martin Luther King, Jr."
Politicians have been picking up on this rhetoric
to justify rolling back civil rights legislation. When Gov. Mike
Foster of Lousiana signed an executive order on Jan. 11 to abolish
affirmative action, he presented the act as a fulfillment of King's
dream. "I can't find anywhere in King's writings," Foster
was quoted in the New York Times (1/12/96), "that King wanted
reverse discrimination. He just wanted to end all discrimination based
In To Renew America, Newt Gingrich praised
King as an individualist who opposed "group rights." And in
promoting the "California Civil Rights Initiative," a ballot
measure that would ban all state affirmative action, Gov. Pete Wilson
invokes King's name more than preachers quote the Bible. Backers of
the initiative show no fear of media accountability as they claim King
as one of their own.
Setting the record straight
The exploitation of King's name, the distortion
of his teachings for political gain, is an ugly development. The term
"affirmative action" did not come into currency until after
King's death "but it was King himself, as chair of the
Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who initiated the first
successful national affirmative action campaign: "Operation
In Atlanta, Philadelphia, Chicago and other
cities, King staffers gathered data on the hiring patterns of
corporations doing business in black communities, and called on
companies to rectify disparities. "At present, SCLC has Operation
Breadbasket functioning in some 12 cities, and the results have been
remarkable," King wrote (quoted in Testament of Hope,
James Washington, ed.), boasting of "800 new and upgraded jobs
[and] several covenants with major industries."
King was well aware of the arguments used against
affirmative action policies. As far back as 1964, he was writing in Why
We Can't Wait: "Whenever the issue of compensatory 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 nothing more.
On the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic."
King supported affirmative action";type
programs because he never confused the dream with American reality. As
he put it, "A society that has done something special against the
Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for the
Negro" to compete on a just and equal basis (quoted in Let the
Trumpet Sound, by Stephen Oates).
In a 1965 Playboy interview, King compared
affirmative action";style policies to the GI Bill: "Within
common law we have ample precedents for special compensatory
programs.... And you will remember that America adopted a policy of
special treatment for her millions of veterans after the war."
In King's teachings, affirmative action approaches
were not "reverse discrimination" or "racial
preference." King promoted affirmative action not as preference for
race over race (or gender over gender), but as a preference for
inclusion, for equal oportunity, for real democracy. Nor was King's
integration punitive: For him, integration benefited all Americans, male
and female, white and non";white alike. And contrary to Gingrich,
King insisted that, along with individual efforts, collective problems
require collective solutions.
Like Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, King
viewed affirmative action as a means to achieving a truly egalitarian
and color";blind society. To destroy the means, the gradual process
by which equality is achieved, destroys the dream itself. And the use of
King's name in this enterprise only adds derision to destruction.
Paul Rockwell is a librarian, media activist and
writer living in Oakland.