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

(Continued from page 1)

Martin Luther King Jr.
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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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"The Declaration of Independence says all men are created equal," Clegg says. "Nobody thinks it doesn't really mean what it says because Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. King gave a brilliant and moving quotation, and I think it says we should not be treating people differently on the basis of skin color."

Many others agree. King's quote has become a staple of conservative belief that "judged by the color of their skin" includes things such as unique appeals to certain voter groups, reserving government contracts for Hispanic-owned businesses, seeking more non-white corporate executives or admitting black students to college with lower test scores.

In the latest issue of the Weekly Standard magazine, the quote appears in the lead of a book review titled "The Price Was High: Affirmative Action and the Betrayal of a Colorblind Society."

Considering race as a factor in affirmative action keeps the wounds of slavery and Jim Crow "sore and festering. It encourages beneficiaries to rely on ethnicity rather than self-improvement to get ahead," wrote the author, George Leef.

The RightWingNews.com blog recently included "The idea that everyone should be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin" in a list of "25 People, Places and Things Liberals Love to Hate."

CHARACTER ALWAYS COUNTS

"Conservatives feel they have embraced that quote completely. They are the embodiment of that quote but get no credit for doing it," says John Hawkins, the author of the article, which was posted Jan. 12. "Liberals like the idea of the quote because it's the most famous thing Martin Luther King said, but they left the principles behind the quote behind a long time ago."

In October, after black actress Stacey Dash was attacked for switching her support from President Obama to Mitt Romney, she said she chose Romney "not by the color of his skin but the content of his character."

Clegg acknowledges that it can be difficult today for some people to resist the temptation to jump to conclusions based on skin color.

He says past discrimination resulted in fewer opportunities for African-Americans, which increased poverty, unemployment and other social pathologies in the black community. "Then white people say, 'What did we tell you? That's the way these people are,' " Clegg says. "It's wrong, people shouldn't do it, but it's going to happen."

Yet as we discipline ourselves not to pre-judge African-Americans, Clegg says, we cannot forget that King asked us to judge character. That means taking actions such as reducing the high rate of black children born to unmarried parents and placing more value on education, he says.

"I don't think King would neglect the 'content of their character' side today," he says.

"You have to break the vicious cycle from both ends. People have to do their best not to use stereotypes, but at the same time, people have to not live up to them."

GOAL: A COLORBLIND SOCIETY

Some doubt we will ever be able to ignore what a person looks like.

"To ignore color is to ignore reality," says Lewis Baldwin, an Alabama native who marched in the civil rights movement and now teaches courses on King at Vanderbilt University.

"Dr. King understood that we all see we are different. You accept color differences, affirm them, celebrate them, but don't allow them to become a barrier to human community," said Baldwin, author of a new King book, "In A Single Garment of Destiny: A Global Vision of Justice."

Yet Martin Luther King III believes that one day we will be able to live every word of his father's dream.

"I think my father's vision was that we should at some point have a colorblind society," he says. "He always was challenging us to be the best nation we could be."

 

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