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I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr.by Michael Eric Dyson
"I Saw That Dream Turn Into a Nightmare":
From Color-Blindness to Black Compensation
"I am a mother with six kids," says the beautiful ebony-skinned woman adorned in batik-print African dress and silver loop earrings. "And part of the time I don't even know where I'm going to get the next meal for my children."
All Martin Luther King, Jr., can do is shake his head and utter, "My, my."
King was on a 1968 swing through rural, poor parts of the black South, drumming up support for his Poor People's March on Washington later that year. He had stopped at a small white wood-frame church in Mississippi to press his case, and to listen to the woes of the poor. A painting of a white Jesus, nearly ubiquitous in black churches, observed their every move. Later King would absorb more tales of Mississippi's material misery.
"People just don't know, but it's really hard," a poor woman in church pleads. "Not only me, there's so many more that's in the same shape. I'm not the only one. It's just so many right around that don't have shoes, clothes, is naked and hungry. Part of the time, you have to fix your children pinto beans morning, dinner and supper. They don't know what it is to get a good meal." King is visibly moved.
"You all are really to be admired," he compassionately offers, "and I want you to know that you have my moral support. I'm going to be praying for you. I'm going to be coming back to see you and we are going to be demanding, when we go to Washington, that something be done and done immediately about these conditions."
King couldn't keep that promise; his life would be snuffed out a mere three weeks before his massive campaign reached its destination. But King hammered home the rationale behind his attempt to unite the desperately poor. He understood that the government owed something to the masses of black folk who had been left behind as America parceled out land and money to whites while exploiting black labor.
"At the very same time that America refused to give the Negro any land," King argues, "through an act of Congress our government was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest, which meant it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor." Building a full head of steam, King rolls his rhetoric down the track of just compensation for blacks by contrasting even more sharply the unequal treatment of the races in education, agriculture, and subsidies.
"But not only did they give them land," King's indictment speeds on, "they built land grant colleges with government money to teach them how to farm. Not only that, they provided county agents to further their expertise in farming. Not only that, they provided low interest rates in order that they could mechanize their farms."
King links white privilege and governmental support directly to black suffering, and thus underscores the hypocrisy of whites who have been helped demanding that blacks thrive through self-help.
"Not only that," King says in delivering the death blow to fallacies about the black unwillingness to work, "today many of these people are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies not to farm, and they are the very people telling the black man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. And this is what we are faced with, and this is the reality."
With one final fell swoop, King reinforces his identification with the destitute, reiterates his belief that the government has failed in its fiduciary obligations to blacks, and subverts the stereotype of blacks shiftlessly waiting around for government cash by insisting that blacks deserve what is coming to them.
"Now, when we come to Washington in this campaign, we are coming to get our check."
This is not the King whom conservatives have used to undermine progressive politics and black interests. Indeed, conservatives must be applauded for their perverse ingenuity in coopting King's legacy and the rhetoric of the civil rights movement. Unlike the radical right, whose racist motivations are hardly obscured by painfully infrequent references to racial equality, contemporary conservatives often speak of race in moral terms gleaned from the black freedom struggle. Thus, while the radical right is open about its disdain for social upheaval in the sixties, many conservatives pretend to embrace a revolution they in fact bitterly opposed. This is especially troubling because of the moral assault by conservatives on civil rights activists who believe that affirmative action, for instance, is part of the ongoing attack on discrimination. These same conservatives rarely target the real enemies of racial equality: newfangled racists who drape their bigotry in scientific jargon or political demagoguery. Instead, they hurl stigma at civil rights veterans who risked great peril to destroy a racist virus found even in the diseased body of ultraconservatism. Perhaps most insidious, conservatives rarely admit that whatever racial enlightenment they possess likely came as blacks and their allies opposed the conservative ideology of race. The price blacks paid for such opposition was abrupt dismissal and name calling: they were often dismissed as un-American, they were sometimes ridiculed as agents provocateurs of violence, and they were occasionally demonized as social pariahs on the body politic.
Worse still, when the civil rights revolution reached its zenith and accomplished some of its goals — including recasting the terms in which the nation discussed race — many conservatives recovered from the shock to their system of belief by going on the offensive. The sixties may have belonged to the liberals, but the subsequent decades have been whipped into line by a conservative backlash. After eroding the spirit of liberal racial reform, conservatives have breathed new life into the racial rhetoric they successfully forced the liberals to abandon. Now terms like "equal playing field," "racial justice," "equal opportunity," and, most ominous, "color-blind" drip from the lips of formerly stalwart segregationist politicians, conservative policy wonks, and intellectual hired guns for deep-pocketed right-wing think tanks. Crucial concepts are deviously turned inside out, leaving the impression of a cyclone turned in on itself. Affirmative action is rendered as reverse racism, while goals and timetables are remade, in sinister fashion, into "quotas." This achievement allows the conservatives to claim that they are opposed to the wrong-headed results of the civil rights movement, even as they claim to uphold its intent — racial equality. Hence, conservatives seize the spotlight and appear to be calm and reasonable about issues of race. In their shadows, liberals and leftists are often portrayed as unreasonable and dishonest figures who uproot the grand ideals of the civil rights movement from its moral ground.
At the heart of the conservative appropriation of King's vision is the argument that King was an advocate of a color-blind society. Hence, any policy or position that promotes color consciousness runs counter to King's philosophy. Moreover, affirmative action is viewed as a poisonous rejection of King's insistence that merit, not race, should determine how education and employment are distributed. The wellspring of such beliefs about King is a singular, golden phrase lifted from his "I Have a Dream" speech. "I have a dream," King eloquently yearned, "my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Of the hundreds of thousands of words that King spoke, few others have had more impact than these thirty-four, uttered when he was thirty-four years old, couched in his most famous oration. Tragically, King's American dream has been seized and distorted by a group of conservative citizens whose forebears and ideology have trampled King's legacy. If King's hope for radical social change is to survive, we must wrest his complex meaning from their harmful embrace. If we are to combat the conservative misappropriation of King's words, we must first understand just how important — and problematic — King's speech has been to American understandings of race for the past thirty years.
As a nine-year-old boy, I saved money from odd jobs and sent off for a 45-rpm record containing excerpts of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s greatest speeches. Since King had been dead for only a few weeks and since I'd first heard about him the evening he was murdered, his recorded speeches had a great impact on me. Hearing the passionate words that King delivered as much as a decade earlier didn't at all diminish their powerful hold on my youthful imagination. I listened to his speeches over and over until his words were scorched into my brain. All I'd have to do was hear the beginning of a King excerpt, and I could immediately conjure the speech and the tumultuous verbal support of his adoring audience. King was constantly interrupted by a sweetly bellowed stream of "all right," "tell the truth," "yes, sir," "un hunh," "go 'head," "preach," "hah hah," and "speak." Besides "I See the Promised Land" — King's searing last speech that interweaved premonition of his death and the promise of black deliverance — I was thrilled the most by "I Have a Dream." King's best-known refrain echoed the longest on my recording since the compiler must have believed that it was King's most important speech.
"I Have a Dream" continues to draw millions around the globe to its hopeful vision of racial harmony. It is easy to see that many Americans identify with King through that speech. Many can recall where they were when it was delivered. Still others recall how reading that speech helped to locate them on the map of racial conscience. In a recent survey of the fifty most anthologized essays in American culture over the last half-century, "I Have a Dream" made the top ten list. King's towering oration shines alongside the essays of Jonathan Swift, Thomas Jefferson, and E. B. White. And as it skillfully did for me thirty years ago, "I Have a Dream" brings black suffering to the surface and tells us how racial healing can be embraced.
Of course, hearing that speech as a boy thirty years ago and hearing it now as a man makes a world of difference. King's radical tones are clearer. His rebellious flourishes defiantly leap to the foreground. And his dismay at America for denying prosperity to millions of blacks is now more sharply focused. Today I read even his labored restraint as a gesture of profound protest. We have surrendered to romantic images of King at the Lincoln Memorial inspiring America to reach, as he reached with outstretched arms, for a better future. All the while we forget his poignant warning against gradual racial progress and his remarkable threat of revolution should our nation fail to keep its promises. Still, like all other great black orators, King understood the value of understating and implying difficult truths. He knew how to drape hard realities in soaring rhetoric that won the day because it struck the right balance of outrage and optimism. To be sure, we have been long on King's optimism while shortchanging his outrage.
In ways that King could never have imagined — indeed, in a fashion that might make him spin in his grave — "I Have a Dream" has been used to chip away at King's enduring social legacy. One phrase has been pinched from King's speech to justify assaults on civil rights in the name of color-blind policies. Moreover, we have frozen King in a timeless mood of optimism that later that very year he grew to question. That's because we have selectively listened to what King had to say to us that muggy afternoon. It is easier for us to embrace the day's warm memories than to confront the cold realities that led to the March on Washington in the first place. August 28, 1963, was a single moment in time that captured the suffering of centuries. It was an afternoon shaped as much by white brutality and black oppression as by uplifting rhetoric. We have chosen to forget how our nation achieved the racial progress we now enjoy.
In the light of the determined misuse of King's rhetoric, a modest proposal appears in order: a ten-year moratorium on listening to or reading "I Have a Dream." At first blush, such a proposal seems absurd and counterproductive. After all, King's words have convinced many Americans that racial justice should be aggressively pursued. The sad truth is, however, that our political climate has eroded the real point of King's beautiful words. We have been ambushed by bizarre and sophisticated distortions of King's true meaning. If we are to recover the authentic purposes of King's address, we must dig beneath his words into our own social and moral habits. Only then can the animating spirit behind his words be truly restored. If we have been as deeply marked by his words as we claim, we need not fear that by putting away his speech we are putting away his ideals. After all, his ideals will have penetrated the very fabric of our personal and public practice. If King's speech has failed to reshape our racial politics sufficiently, it might be a good idea to huddle and ask where we have gone wrong. In the long run, we will do more to preserve King's moral aims by focusing on what he had in mind and how he sought to achieve his goals. That doesn't mean that King's words are scripture or that we cannot differ with him about his beliefs or strategies. We might, however, lower the likelihood of King's words being crudely snatched out of context and used by forces that he strongly opposed.
The great consolation to giving up "I Have a Dream" is that we pay attention to King's other writings and orations. Out of sheer neglect, most of his other works have been cast aside as rhetorical stepchildren. After devoting a decade to King's other works, especially his trenchant later speeches, we will grasp the true scope of his social agenda. We will also understand how King constantly refined his view of the American dream. As things stand, "I Have a Dream" has been identified as King's definitive statement on race. To that degree it has become an enemy to his moral complexity. It alienates the social vision King expressed in his last four years. The overvaluing and misreading of "I Have a Dream" has skillfully silenced a huge dimension of King's prophetic ministry.
Before putting away King's address and before attending to his other speeches, it will be useful to acknowledge "I Have a Dream's" true greatness and read it through the lens of King's mature struggles. True enough, on August 28, 1963, King stood at the sunbathed peak of racial transformation and at the height of his magical oratorical powers. King summoned resources of hope that took wing on carefully chosen words. He turned the Lincoln Memorial into a Baptist sanctuary and preached an inspiring sermon. "I Have a Dream" is unquestionably one of the defining moments in American civic rhetoric. Its features remain remarkable: The eloquence and beauty of its metaphors. The awe-inspiring reach of its civic ideals. Its edifying call for spiritual and moral renewal. Its appeal to transracial social harmony. Its graceful embrace of militancy and moderation. Its soaring expectations of charity and justice. Its inviolable belief in the essential goodness of our countrymen. These themes and much more came out that day.
King's delivery was equally majestic. His lilting cadences stretched along a spiral of intermittent sonic crescendoes. His trumpet-like baritone measured the pulse of his audience's fervor. He evoked his congregation's spiritual longing in sounds as tangy as Southern barbecue. His rhythms were brilliantly varied, a mix of blues and gospel. King encompassed his people's dashed hopes in slow, simmering drawls. He energized their yearning for deliverance in sharp pops of verbal intensity. And his performance was body-wide. His hands stabbed the air to highlight his points. His eyes squinted, then widened — not at all like the reflexive tics demanded by black stereotype — to underscore his propulsive moods. King reached to the heavens on tiptoe as his speech climaxed. King's enthusiasm raced through his limbs and circled his trunk as he was literally lifted by the crowd's momentum. It was a remarkable reflection of the levitating effect of his rhetorical genius. All of this made that speech what it has surely become: the defining oration of our age, the characteristic statement of King's career, and the oratorical taboo against which no other speech by King seems to prosper.
As great as the speech is, we have too often dulled its challenge beneath our overhearing of King's immortal cadences. To be sure, it is almost impossible not to be moved by King's vocal charms and intellectual inspiration. His clarion call for freedom rings in our ears each time the speech is replayed. "I Have a Dream's" condensing brilliance remains intact. King packs centuries of pain and possibility into nineteen minutes and thus makes brevity a servant of justice. But the greatest achievements of the speech are overshadowed by our admiration of its other great parts. King intended that day not simply to detail a dream but to narrate a nightmare. While the phrases that expose racial horror are as beautiful as the phrases that clarify hope, they are obscure because they are not as frequently excerpted. The simpler remedy to banishing King's speech for a decade might appear to be the application of an equal-time proviso: whenever the "dream" sentences are broadcast, we must broadcast as well the lines that speak of hurt and disappointment. But that will never work, in part, because it has not yet worked. One explanation is that the American hunger for amnesia is too great. And where amnesia fails, nostalgia succeeds. Our nation is too often overwhelmed by the desire for a past where racial issues, though desperate, were at least clear. For many, that beats living, as we do today, in an age of racial progress where many boundaries have been blurred and issues are much muddier. The inclination in the past has been to seize on the positive, edifying portions of King's speech. The parts of the speech that address the terrifying and disheartening aspects of racism are suppressed. Plus, the cultural forces that seek to control King's image want to fix his image as a healer. They conveniently forget that King was seen by most whites as a troublemaker throughout his career. In that light, reciting the drearier sentences will never turn the trick.
Still, the metaphors King used to describe the nightmare are forceful. Despite the "momentous decree" of the Emancipation Proclamation, Negroes were not free. They were "still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation" even as they lived "on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity." After noting that blacks were "languishing in the corners of American society," King concluded that the Negro "finds himself an exile in his own land." King announced to his civic congregation that the purpose of the march was to "dramatize a shameful condition." And then he evoked an arresting, extended metaphor to capture the frustration that blacks confront. America, he suggested, had failed to live up to its fiduciary obligations to black citizens. With this metaphor, King surgically penetrated the national conscience and sutured black suffering to America's identity as the wealthiest nation on the globe. King claimed that the signers of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were indeed signing a promissory note for all Americans. In the case of blacks, America was in profound default. It had issued blacks a bad check that had "come back marked 'insufficient funds.'" But, King declared, black folk refused to believe that "there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity in this nation." The march, then, was a march to collect on the promises that had been made, to cash a check, King argued, "that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice."
He was not finished yet. King chided those people who held that blacks should be satisfied with a gradual approach to social change, and he hammered away at such an idea by declaring "the fierce urgency of now," reminding America that the "sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent" would not pass until the coming of the "autumn of freedom and equality." King issued a warning that is still striking when it is shed of our suffocating distortions of his dream: "There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges."
The militancy of these words can easily be relieved if one points out that King rushed to caution black militants against mimicking the hatred of white bigots. Predictably, that passage is often cited to douse the fire of black dissidents. But King's humanitarian urges, glimpsed in his warning against distrusting all white people — a warning that most black folk didn't need to hear, and one that King issued, perhaps, as a gesture of reassurance to white allies — do not quench his revolutionary thirst for justice. Thus, in answer to the rhetorical question of when black civil rights devotees would be satisfied, King thundered a string of resolute "nevers": black folk would never be satisfied as long as police brutality, disenfranchisement, lodging discrimination, black ghettoization, and attacks on black self-esteem were routinely practiced. Indeed, black folk would never be satisfied, King shouted, quoting the biblical prophet Amos, "until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." These passages have been virtually erased from our collective memory of that speech.
If such passages from King's most famous oration have been underplayed, many of his other speeches and writings have been unjustly neglected. In King's first visit to Washington to speak before the Lincoln Memorial, in 1957, he argued for black enfranchisement in the form of the ballot. In that speech, "Give Us the Ballot — We Will Transform the South," King also delivered a stinging rebuke to the sort of moderate neoliberalism that is now in vogue among Democrats. Terming it a "quasi liberalism," King indicts a political philosophy "so bent on seeing all sides that it fails to become committed to either side." King deemed such liberalism of little use to freedom struggles because it "is so objectively analytical that it is not subjectively committed," and because it "is neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm." In 1961, King addressed the AFL-CIO convention in Florida in a speech entitled, "If the Negro Wins, Labor Wins." Even then, King briefly outlined his dream while carefully linking it to social and economic justice. King claimed that the American dream is "a dream of equality of opportunity, of privilege and property widely distributed" and "of a land where men will not take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few."
In his commencement address to Lincoln University in 1961, entitled "The American Dream," King warned that the "price America must pay for the continued exploitation of the Negro and other minority groups is the price of its own destruction." King also chided the critics of poor black communities who failed to understand that black criminality is "environmental and not racial" since "poverty, disease, and ignorance breed crime whatever the racial group may be." King argued against white supremacy and black inferiority, asserting that if "we are to implement the American dream we must get rid of the notion once and for all that there are superior and inferior races." In 1965, after the bloody march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, King, in his speech "Our God Is Marching On!" encouraged his listeners to "march on poverty, until no American parent has to skip a meal so that their children may march on poverty, until no starved man walks the streets of our cities and towns in search of jobs that do not exist."
In 1967, King delivered a speech at New York's Riverside Church in opposition to the Vietnam War exactly a year before his assassination. In "A Time to Break Silence," he scorned American imperialism and claimed that the war was stealing precious resources from the domestic war on poverty and racism. King urged a "revolution of values," a favorite theme of his later years, which he believed would "soon cause us to question the fairness of many of our past and present policies." In his last presidential address for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), "Where Do We Go from Here?" King laid out a daring social vision, a bold departure from his earlier civil rights focus, that joined concern for economic inequality to race and culture. King begged his organization to be possessed of a "divine dissatisfaction" that would lead them to be upset until "the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice."
Two months before his death, King preached a sermon, "The Drum Major Instinct," at Ebenezer Baptist Church, which he copastored with his father, Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr. In this remarkable homily, King, a full quarter-century before "whiteness studies" became popular in American academic circles, gave a brilliant analysis of the cultural meanings of white identities. King spoke of how he talked to his white jailers in Birmingham, and how their pride and psychic investment in their whiteness was a self-destructive measure, not least because they were "living on...the satisfaction of [their] skin being white," when in reality they were as bad off as many blacks. Speaking of them, King said he informed them that "[you think] you are somebody big because you are white," but in fact "you can't send your children to school." In King's last Sunday morning sermon, "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution," delivered at Washington, D.C.'s (Episcopal) National Cathedral four days before his death, King was highly critical of the conservative self-help "bootstraps" philosophy, which held that "if the Negro is to rise out of poverty, if the Negro is to rise out of slum conditions, if he is to rise out of discrimination and segregation, he must do it all by himself." King sadly but forcefully observed that "the roots of racism are very deep in our country, and there must be something positive and massive in order to get rid of all the effects of racism and the tragedies of racial injustice."
The night before he was murdered, King warned, in his famous "I See the Promised Land" speech in Memphis, that "if something isn't done, and in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed." And in "A Christmas Sermon on Peace," broadcast on Christmas Eve 1967 on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as part of the Massey Lectures, King acknowledged "that not long after talking about" the dream in Washington, "I started seeing it turn into a nightmare." He spoke of the nightmarish conditions of Birmingham, where four girls were murdered in a church bombing a few weeks after his speech. He spoke of the punishing poverty that he observed in the nation's ghettoes as the antithesis of his dream, as were the race riots and the Vietnam War. King confessed that while "I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes," that "I still have a dream." King had stretched his dream by now to include the desire "that one day the idle industries of Appalachia will be revitalized, and the empty stomachs of Mississippi will be filled, and brotherhood will be more than a few words at the end of prayer, but rather the first order of business on every legislative agenda." His act of dreaming in 1967 was a courageous act of social imagination and national hope, perhaps even more so than when he dreamed out loud in Washington in 1963.
These few speeches, among King's myriad orations, sermons, essays, articles, lectures, and books, amply prove that giving up "I Have a Dream" does not prevent us from exploring King's dream. These speeches place King's dream in the broader context of his spiritual and moral evolution over the last three years of his life. Set free from the ideological confines of his "I Have a Dream" speech, King's true ethical ambitions are free to breathe through the words he spoke and wrote as he made his way to the promised land. If we have to do without "I Have a Dream" for ten years, we will be forced to pore over his other words, finding in them resources for the love and social transformation that were dear to King. If we are forced to live without that speech for a decade, we may be forced to live it instead. In so doing, we can truly preserve King's hope for racial revolution by wrestling with his less popular but more concrete solutions for equality and justice.
Conservatives and liberals alike have feasted on King's hunger for a world beyond race, a world where color will be neither the final sign of human identity nor the basis for enjoying advantage or suffering liability. To be sure, King's life and work pointed to such a day when his dream might be fulfilled. But he was too sophisticated a racial realist, even as he dreamed in edifying technicolor in our nation's capital, to surrender a sobering skepticism about how soon that day might arrive. His religious faith worked against such naiveté since it held that evil can be conquered only by acknowledging its existence. King never trusted the world to harness the means to make itself into the utopia of which even his brilliant dream was a faint premonition. The problem with many of King's conservative interpreters is not simply that they have not been honest about how they have consciously or unintentionally hindered the realization of King's dream, but more brutally, that in the face of such hindrances, they have demanded that we act as if the dream has become real and has altered the racial landscape. As an ideal, the color-blind motif spurs us to develop a nation where race will make no difference. As a presumed achievement, color-blindness reinforces the very racial misery it is meant to replace. Unfortunately, conservatives have not often possessed King's discerning faith or his ability to distinguish ideals from the historical conditions that make their realization possible. Most important, many conservatives lack the sense of poetic license that filled King's rhetoric. Instead they flatten his spiritual vision beneath the dead weight of uninspired literalism.
For example, William Bradford Reynolds, who served as assistant attorney general for civil rights at the Department of Justice under Reagan for eight years, attacked affirmative action as a cruel departure from King's uplifting vision of color-blindness. Reynolds contended that "the initial affirmative action message of racial unification — so eloquently delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his famous 'I Have a Dream' speech — was effectively drowned out by the all too persistent drumbeat of racial polarization that accompanied the affirmative action preferences of the 1970s into the 1980s." Reynolds continued, writing that what had "started as a journey to reach the idea of color blindness" had been sidetracked by infighting among competing racial or ethnic groups. While excesses and mistakes of the sort that Reynolds outlined surely occur, they do not express the fundamental aims of affirmative action: the correction of past and present discrimination and the granting of equal opportunity to historically excluded minorities. Minorities who possessed merit in the past were unjustly treated. Merit, then, wasn't the crucial criterion that determined their participation or exclusion; race or gender was decisive. To pretend otherwise, and to discount race or gender now in combating patterns of racial or gender exclusion, violates common sense and impedes the sort of justice for which King fought. King argued that it "is impossible to create a formula for the future which does not take into account that our society has been doing something special against the Negro for hundreds of years." King went on to question how the Negro "could be absorbed into the mainstream of American life if we do not do something special for him now, in order to balance the equation and equip him now to compete on a just and equal basis."
In this light, it makes sense to conceive of merit as a dependent good. It functions according to its immediate environment of comparison. What is meritorious in one context — say, an ability to play violin in a high school symphony or to recite Shakespeare in a theater company — is irrelevant in the next — for instance, a soccer match, where neither skill is particularly useful. Besides, even in the same sort of environment, say a university setting, the same skills may be unequally prized at different schools. For instance, one university may need to fill a first-chair violin slot, where another is overrun with them. At another school, soccer is the sport of choice, offering scholarships to skilled players, while other schools don't field soccer teams. The problem with having used race so long as the sole criterion for participation in schools or jobs is that race wiped out any consideration of merit. Not to take that historical feature into account is not only to deny history, but to corrupt the potential for achieving justice. In fact, race became a kind of merit itself; put another way, if race functioned as a demerit, corrective justice dictates that for a time it serve as a merit. It was King who wrote that "the nation must not only radically readjust its attitude toward the Negro in the compelling present, but must incorporate in its planning some compensatory consideration for the handicaps he has inherited from the past."
Another conservative writer, Richard Bernstein, eloquently suggests that King and the civil rights movement would be opposed to contemporary multiculturalism and affirmative action, its social complement. Bernstein contends that the "obsession with the themes of cultural domination and expression justifies one of the most important departures from the principal and essential goal of the civil rights movement: equality of opportunity." He argues that multiculturalism, by contrast, "insists on equality of results." He maintains that King's "dream of a day when my four little children will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character" crystallizes in "one sentence the essential ideal of liberalism." Multiculturalism, however, reaches a directly opposite conclusion: "'Judge me by the color of my skin for therein lies my identity and my place in the world.'" And repentant conservative Michael Lind writes that King "publicly opposed racial preferences." But King's words contradict Bernstein and Lind. King said that whenever the "issue of compensatory or preferential treatment for Negroes is raised," many of our friends "recoil in horror." As King stated, the "Negro should be granted equality, they agree; but he should ask nothing more." King goes on to write that the "relevant question" is not what blacks want, but how "can we make freedom real and substantial for our colored citizens? What just course will ensure the greatest speed and completeness? And how do we combat opposition and overcome obstacles arising from the defaults of the past?" King advocated a strong multicultural approach that Bernstein claims he would have rejected. Further, King seems to have sided squarely with at least some version of multicultural emphasis on substantive, not just procedural, justice. As he wrote, the "Negro today is not struggling for some abstract, vague rights, but for concrete and prompt improvement in his way of life." King rejected the simplistic and ill-advised distinction between equality of opportunity and equality of results. "The struggle for rights is, at bottom, a struggle for opportunities," King wrote. But he warned that "with equal opportunity must come the practical, realistic aid which will equip [the Negro] to seize it."
Even black conservatives have attempted to wedge between King and affirmative action in the name of color-blindness. Shelby Steele wins the symbolic sweepstakes hands down. His book, Content of Our Character, lifts King's phrase as both the title and the basis of his argument for color-blindness and for his vigorous attack on affirmative action. And Boston University economist Glenn Loury quotes King's content of character phrase too, pointing out that today King's dream is "cited mainly by conservatives." Loury writes that the "deep irony here is that, while in the liberal mind a vigorous defense of the color-blind ideal is regarded as an attack on blacks, it is becoming increasingly clear that weaning ourselves from dependence on affirmative action is the only way to secure lasting civic equality for the descendants of slaves."
Perhaps the most controversial, and bitterly contested, appropriation of King's vital legacy by a black conservative is that of California businessman, and University of California regent, Ward Connerly. Connerly has gained national attention for his successful efforts to end affirmative action in California with the infamous Proposition 209. More recently, besides his antiaffirmative action forays into Washington State and Florida, Connerly officially opened his National Campaign Against Affirmative Action on the King holiday in 1997. He defended this symbolic gesture of identification with King's legacy by declaring that his actions were consistent with the martyr's goals, though to King's traditional admirers it smelled more like treachery. Connerly insisted that his group did "no disrespect to [King] by acknowledging what he wanted this nation to become, and we're going to fight to get the nation back on the journey that Dr. King laid out." Connerly contends that preferential treatment of minorities in college admissions and in the workplace undermines King's dream of a color-blind society and repudiates everything he stood for. Proposition 209 is certainly Connerly's crowning achievement to date, a piece of legislation that Connerly views as the natural extension of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In fact, as printed on the ballot, Proposition 209 pilfered language directly from the 1964 bill, holding that "the state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education or public contracting."
Never mind that when those words were written, racial presumptions and practices were radically different. One major presumption was that the 1964 bill was marshaled to combat the forces of white supremacy that pervaded Southern government and civil society in de jure segregation, and in Northern states where de facto segregation reigned. Hence, the practice of whites' excluding blacks was outlawed. Blacks received newly granted citizenship rights that were framed in the universal terms that allowed them to be applied to blacks in the first place. In short, blacks should have already been included, and would have been, except for the racial distortion of the Constitution's original intent of freedom for "all men." The irony is that in order to protect the legal and civil rights of black citizens — after all, no such protection was needed, or granted, for white citizens, save in the Constitution and Bill of Rights — such protection had to be cast in language that suggested universal application. But everyone associated with the struggle for black rights understood three facts about such universality. One, universality was not a given, since it had to be fought for. Two, it was not self-evident, since it had to be argued for. And three, universality was not inalienable, since it had to be reaffirmed time and again. In other words, there were at least a few competing versions of the universal floating around. The trick was to incorporate one version of universalism, black rights, into the legal arc of another version of universalism, white privilege, while preserving the necessary illusion of neutrality on which such rights theoretically depended. Hence a philosophical principle — what the philosopher Hegel might call a "concrete universal" — was transformed into a political strategy, allowing both whites and blacks to preserve their specific stake in a universal value: democracy. To miss this process — that is, to mistake politics for philosophical principles, or, in turn, to disregard their symbiotic relationship in shaping American democracy — is to distort fatally the improvisational, ramshackle, halt-and-leap fashion by which American politics achieves its conflicting goals.
The great mistake of Connerly and his conservative colleagues is to think that American ideals, and the politics that support them, possess a neutral, universal meaning when in fact they are made up of specific, interest-driven priorities and arguments. We are on firm footing as long as we remember that the function of ideals is to govern political and social life or, more realistically, to provide an intellectual leg to stand on to argue for our view of the world. But if we collapse ideals and practices, if we mistake our views as eternal and complete, and the next person's or group's as imperfect and partial, we are on dangerous ground. Conservatives of Connerly's ilk have rarely proved their ability to make such distinctions when it comes to race. They are often bewitched by a stultifying literalism that leads them to invest in the crude reversal of fortune scenario Connerly painted when he imagined that opponents to his tactics would "stand in the doorways like the segregationists did in the 60s."
Such a literal failure of imagination also led California's Republican party to a devious plan: to employ the image of King at — where else? — the 1963 March on Washington delivering his most noted line about content of character, in a 1996 political ad urging voters to adopt the ballot measure targeting affirmative action. When civil rights leaders protested and the King estate threatened a lawsuit, the party relented, but not before the damage had been done. King had been the victim of an open surreptitiousness; his words had been twisted against their maker to justify a political policy that was underwritten by a philosophy he certainly opposed. If they were literary postmodernists, the Republican party might have been written off as a humorous attempt to "kill the author" and make merrily macabre uses of his "text." Alas, they were thudding literalists, arguing that King really believed what they made him appear to affirm. Not even Connerly could stomach his comrades' display of ideological immaturity; he claimed he would have never used King in the ad, since the backlash was predictable. Still, he fired his own political consultant, Republican Arnold Steinberg, when he vigorously criticized the Republican strategy. "The use of King," Steinberg emphasized, "was juvenile at best and counterproductive at worst."
Connerly, however, remains staunch in his beliefs. "Every citizen should have an equal chance at the starting line of life's race," Connerly contends. "But there should not be a guaranteed outcome in the race. If you discriminate for someone, you discriminate against someone else." King, however, didn't buy the analogy or the logic by which it was supported. He wrote that on "the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic." He believed that "it is obvious that if a man is entered at the starting line in a race three hundred years after another man, the first would have to perform some impossible feat in order to catch up with his fellow runner." To underscore his point, King told of a visit with Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru during which he and Nehru discussed "the difficult problem of the untouchables, a problem not unrelated to the American Negro dilemma." Although many Indians were still prejudiced against the untouchables, it had "become unpopular to exhibit this prejudice in any form." The reason for the changed climate was Gandhi's great influence as well as the prohibition against discriminating against the untouchables in India's constitution. Further, not only did the Indian government spend "millions of rupees annually developing housing and job opportunities in villages heavily inhabited by untouchables," but when "two applicants compete for entrance into a college or university, one of the applicants being an untouchable and the other of high caste, the school is required to accept the untouchable." King indicates that his colleague, college professor and King biographer Lawrence Reddick, asked Nehru if such a practice weren't discriminatory. "'Well it may be,' the Prime Minister answered. 'But this is our way of atoning for the centuries of injustices we have inflicted upon these people.'" King advocated that America "seek its own ways of atoning for the injustices she has inflicted upon her Negro citizens," as a "practical way to bring the Negro's standards up to a realistic level."
Martin Luther King, Jr., has wrongly been made the poster boy for opposition to affirmative action. His glittering moral authority has been liberally sprinkled on conservative assaults on civil rights communities and progressive black interests, all because of thirty-four words lifted out of the context of his commitment to complete equality and freedom for all Americans. Rarely has so much depended on so little. But to take full and just measure of King's views, we must read him, studying his words and his life as he evolved to engage the myriad forces that hinder the liberation of black and poor people. Unfortunately, King has been used to chide black and other humanitarian leaders who have sought, however imperfectly, to extend the views that he really held. If conservatives were to read and listen to King carefully, they would not only find little basis in King's writings to justify their assaults in his name, but they would be brought up short by his vision of racial compensation and racial reparation, a vision far more radical than most current views of affirmative action. King wrote in Why We Can't Wait that few "people consider the fact that, in addition to being enslaved for two centuries," that black folk were also robbed of wages for toil. It is worth quoting King at length:
No amount of gold could provide an adequate compensation for the exploitation and humiliation of the Negro in America down through the centuries. Not all the wealth of this affluent society could meet the bill. Yet a price can be placed on unpaid wages. The ancient common law has always provided a remedy for the appropriation of the labor of one human being by another. This law should be made to apply for American Negroes. The payment should be in the form of 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. Such measures would certainly be less expensive than any computation based on two centuries of unpaid wages and accumulated interest. I am proposing, therefore, that, just as we granted a GI Bill of Rights to war veterans, America launch a broad-based and gigantic Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged, our veterans of the long siege of denial.
King ingeniously anticipated objections to programs of racial compensation on the grounds they discriminated against poor whites who were equally disadvantaged. He knew that conservatives would manipulate racial solidarity through an insincere display of new-found concern for poor whites that pitted their interests against those of blacks. King claimed that "millions of [the] white poor" would benefit from the bill. Although he believed that the "moral justification for special measures for Negroes is rooted in the robberies inherent in the institution of slavery," many poor whites, he argued, were "the derivative victims" of slavery. He conceded that poor whites are "chained by the weight of discrimination" even if its "badge of degradation does not mark them." King understood how many poor whites failed to understand the class dimensions of their exploitation by elite whites who appealed to vicious identity politics to obscure their actions. King held that discrimination was in ways "more evil for [poor whites], because it has confused so many by prejudice that they have supported their own oppressors." Hence, it was only just that a Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged, intent on "raising the Negro from backwardness," would also rescue "a large stratum of the forgotten white poor." For King, compensatory measures that were truly just — that is, took race into account while also considering class — had the best chance of bringing healing to our nation's minorities and to the white poor. It was never one or the other; both were a moral priority for King.
Martin Luther King, Jr., hoped for a color-blind society, but only as oppression and racism were destroyed. Then, when color suggested neither privilege nor punishment, human beings could enjoy the fruits of our common life. Until then, King realized that his hope was a distant but necessary dream. As he lamented, the "concept of supremacy is so imbedded in the white society that it will take many years for color to cease to be a judgmental factor." As we interpret King's hope for a color-blind world, we must keep this in mind.
One of the greatest pitfalls of idolizing the "I Have a Dream" speech and failing to grapple with King's views on compensation to blacks is that it obscures King's dramatic change of heart and mind about the roots of white racism. Liberals and leftists often extol King's virtues as a racial healer and use his views to chide more militant blacks. They have little to say, however, about King's later-life contention that most whites were unconscious racists. For many Americans King's admission betrays his fervent commitment to racial reconciliation. That would be an unfortunate conclusion since King never shrank from racial healing. He simply believed that such healing could occur only after we acknowledged just how pervasive racism is in our nation. King's remarkable statement cannot be dismissed as the ranting of a reverse racist. We must consider what led him to such a stunning reversal of opinion. Perhaps in the process we can shed light on our own contentious racial debates.
Copyright © 2000 by Michael Eric Dyson
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