King Advocated Special Programs That Went Beyond
WOULD Martin Luther King have supported
the California Civil Rights Initiative? Supporters of the ballot
initiative have cited King's words in support of their effort to
end affirmative-action programs. King's family members and former
associates in the civil rights movement have expressed outrage over
this use of the King legacy.
The state Republican Party on Thursday cut segments
of a Proposition 209 TV commercial that featured an eight-second
clip of King's "I Have a Dream" speech.
Although I am a historian and the editor of Kings
papers, I am reluctant to speculate about what King might have done
if he had not been assassinated in 1968. If he had survived, he
would be the product of 67 years of hard-earned experience rather
than the 39-year-old civil rights leader of 1968.
Openness to programs
Nevertheless, if others wish to speculate about
King, as a historian, I am compelled to object when the abundant
documentary evidence regarding his life is ignored or misused. And
King’s own words and writings clearly indicate he was open to governmental
programs that compensated for past wrongs. Certainly, the use of
King’s oration at the 1963 March on Washington to attack affirmative
action betrays a lack of historical understanding. King’s dream
of a nation in which every American would be judged not "by the
color of their skin but by the content of their character" was surely
his ideal as well as the guiding principle of the civil rights movement.
But the complete text of King's speech makes clear that his dream
was of a future that did not yet exist. He spoke of his dream only
as an extemporaneous addition to his prepared text, which charged
that America had "defaulted" on its promise to ensure "the inalienable
rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" for all citizens.
He warned racial justice would be achieved only when the "whirlwinds
of revolt' shook "the foundations of our nation."
In fact, realization of King's "beloved community"
would require a radical transformation of American society, and
he argued for governmental policies that would compensate for the
historical wrongs committed against African-Americans. Although
the term "affirmative action" was not widely used during King's
lifetime, he advocated special programs that would enable African-Americans
to enjoy equal opportunity.
Evidence of support
Even before the March on Washington, he had applauded
the Indian government's efforts to help the caste once called untouchables
through "special treatment to enable the victims of discrimination"
including the provision of Especial employment opportunities." Moreover,
in his 1964 book, "Why We Can’t Wait," King compared the social
reforms he favored to the GI Bill of Rights, which gave World War
II veterans special preferences including home loans, college scholarships
and special advantages in competition for civil service jobs. King
maintained that African-Americans could never be adequately
compensated for the "exploitation and humiliation" they had
suffered in the past, but he proposed a "Negro Bill of Rights" as
a partial remedy for these wrongs. He insisted that African-Americans
should be compensated through "a massive program by the government
of special, compensatory measures which could be regarded as a settlement
in accordance with the accepted practice of common law." He added
that "such measures would certainly be less expensive than any computation
based on two centuries of unpaid wages and accumulated interest."
King's support of compensatory programs for African-Americans was
expressed in the context of his call for major social reforms that
would address the economic problems of poor people of all races.
His speeches during the final year of his life advocated major economic
reforms that went far beyond the kind of affirmative-action programs
that later became so controversial.
There is considerable irony that federal affirmative-action programs
were first established in the aftermath of King's assassination.
Rather dm the product of King’s activism, they were implemented
by the administration of Richard Nixon, who was determined to stifle
black militancy. King may have advocated compensatory programs as
compensation for past racial injustices, but affirmative-action
programs also served as a safety valve for festering black resentment.
Statements speak volumes
It is impossible to know how King would have reacted to the consolidation
of affirmative-action programs under Republican and Democratic administrations
since his death, but his statements reveal that he sought reforms
that were far more extensive dm the affirmative-action programs
now in place. We also cannot know how King would feel about those
who now misuse his words, but I am reminded of his response to a
black leader who capitalized on King's presence to attract press
coverage for a black power pronouncement. "I have been used before,"
King remarked, "One more time won't hurt."
San Jose Mercury News, October 27, 1996