In “50 Years Later” New York Times black opinionator Charles Blow blows it by about 45 years, writing that he wonders “whether the day [Martin Luther King Jr.] imagined” in his “I Have A Dream Speech” during the March on Washington “will ever come and whether many Americans have quietly abandoned King’s dream as a vision that can’t — or shouldn’t — exist in reality.”
Blow needn’t have wondered. All he need do is consider that by the late 1960s King’s former followers had all but universally abandoned his dream of a nation where his children and all God’s children “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” and instead demanded preferential treatment based on their race.
A commenter below predictably responds: “We’ve been over this before. MLK was an affirmative action proponent. You are being dishonest by selectively quoting his rhetoric to make it look like he wasn’t.”
He’s right about one thing: we have been over this before. The charge of dishonesty — a staple of preferentialists driven to intellectual apoplexy by anyone who still takes King’s dream seriously and has the temerity to quote it — is not worthy of response, but since the “if King were alive today” rejoinder is so ubiquitous I will discuss it, again (and no doubt again again some time in the future).
In Original Intent And Original Meaning [And Martin Luther King] I discussed the distinction between “original intent” and “original meaning” and applied that distinction to the debate over King:
In a recent post discussing some of the fallout from Martin Luther King’s birthday, I asked “What Do We Honor When We Honor Doctor King? (And Who Are ‘We?’)” There had been many protests of President Bush laying a wreath on King’s grave, nearly all of them criticizing him for betraying King by his opposition to racial preferences. Indeed, nothing seems to send preferentialists around the bend and over the top faster than critics of preferences quoting King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, as we always do.
And they always respond with one version or another of “if King were alive today” he would be a strong advocate of racial preferences. I have some reservations about this assertion, but on balance I suspect it is true. After all, all King’s followers, the NAACP (which had advocated a strong version of colorblindness in court for decade after decade), and virtually the entire Democratic party did an about face on colorblindness starting in the late 1960s, and there is no compelling reason to suppose that King himself would have stood against this trend.
Taking a page from the original meaning book, however, we can see that the proper response to the posthumous King’s probable position is, So what? King’s specific intent does not determine the meaning of the principle he evoked, either for his contemporaries or for subsequent generations…. Of course in this case the text in question is not so dense and opaque, like “due process” or even “equal protection.” What part of wanting people to be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin is so difficult to understand?
Now, King’s speech is not a part of the Constitution (at least not of its text), but it has achieved a well-deserved iconic stature. It gave voice to an understanding of equality that traces it roots back at least to some of the abolitionists, that achieved partial but limited success in the Reconstruction Amendments, and that, finally, was embedded in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the year following King’s delivery on the Mall.
Thus … I believe those of us who continue to resent benefits or burdens being based on skin color are honoring the meaning of Martin Luther King’s ideals much more fully than preferentialists who argue that if he were alive today he would agree with them.
Writing, as I am, about fifteen minutes from Monticello, it seems all too obvious to me that there are some ideals that are not discredited simply because their authors fail to live up to them.
“In quoting King,” I wrote two years later in Hijacking A Civil Rights Hero, “we honor the principle he stood for, whether or not he would have continued to stand by that principle in the future that he was denied.”
We honor King far more, in fact, than those pro-preference apparatchiks who call us “dishonest” for quoting him and can enlist him in their ranks only by forcing his ghost to recant the most eloquent articulation of the American principle of equality — that we should all be treated without regard to race, creed, or color — since the Declaration of Independence.
Thanks to Powerline for linking to this post earlier today. Also on Powerline today, Paul Mirengoff’s From Dream To Nightmare In Fifty Years should not be missed. It lists four demands of today’s “civil rights” movement that were purposefully and glaringly absent from King’s famous speech.