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 on color."
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 Breadbasket."
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.