January 21, 2013

A dream divided: Interpreting letter, spirit of MLK

Disagreement remains on the real meaning of the slain civil rights icon's most famous speech.

By JESSE WASHINGTON/The Associated Press

"I have a dream that 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."

Martin Luther King Jr.
click image to enlarge

Fifty years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial, liberals and conservatives continue to clash about how the line “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” should be applied when it comes to affirmative action and other measures aimed at helping minorities.

1963 File Photo/The Associated Press

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This sentence spoken by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has been quoted countless times as expressing one of America's bedrock values, its language almost sounding like a constitutional amendment on equality.

Yet today, 50 years after King shared this vision during his most famous speech, there is considerable disagreement over what it means.

The quote is used to support opposing views on politics, affirmative action and programs intended to help the disadvantaged. Just as the words of the nation's founders are parsed for modern meanings on guns and abortion, so are King's words used in debates over the proper place of race in America.

As we mark the King holiday, what might he ask of us in a time when both the president and a disproportionate number of people in poverty are black? Would King have wanted us to completely ignore race in a "color-blind" society? To consider race as one of many factors about a person? And how do we discern character?

VISION YET TO BE REALIZED 

For at least two of King's children, the future envisioned by the father has yet to arrive.

"I don't think we can ignore race," says Martin Luther King III.

"What my father is asking is to create the climate where every American can realize his or her dreams," he says. "Now, what does that mean when you have 50 million people living in poverty?"

Bernice King doubts her father would seek to ignore differences.

"When he talked about the beloved community, he talked about everyone bringing their gifts, their talents, their cultural experiences," she says. "We live in a society where we may have differences, of course, but we learn to celebrate these differences."

The meaning of King's monumental quote is more complex today than in 1963 because "the unconscious signals have changed," says the historian Taylor Branch, author of the acclaimed trilogy "America in the King Years."

Fifty years ago, bigotry was widely accepted. Today, Branch says, even though prejudice is widely denounced, many people unconsciously pre-judge others.

"Unfortunately, race in American history has been one area in which Americans kid themselves and pretend to be fair-minded when they really are not," says Branch, whose new book is "The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement."

Branch believes that today, King would ask people of all backgrounds -- not just whites -- to deepen their patriotism by leaving their comfort zones, reaching across barriers and learning about different people.

"To remember that we all have to stretch ourselves to build the ties that bind a democracy, which really is the source of our strength," Branch says.

Bernice King says her father is asking us "to get to a place -- we're obviously not there -- but to get to a place where the first thing that we utilize as a measurement is not someone's external designation, but it really is trying to look beyond that into the substance of a person in making certain decisions, to rid ourselves of those kinds of prejudices and biases that we often bring to decisions that we make."

That takes a lot of "psychological work," she says, adding, "He's really challenging us."

TO BE TAKEN LITERALLY?

For many conservatives, the modern meaning of King's quote is clear: Special consideration for one racial or ethnic group is a violation of the dream.

The quote is like the Declaration of Independence, says Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank that studies race and ethnicity. In years past, he says, America may have needed to grow into the words, but today they must be obeyed to the letter.

(Continued on page 2)

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