Would Martin Luther King really be against affirmative action?
It's a common debating tactic to assert that some respected figure of the past would endorse your position on some controversy of the present. There is little doubt that the originals would find the views attributed to them surprising sometimes. Abraham Lincoln, for example, has been claimed as a forbear by everyone from Communists to Dixiecrats. Lately, opponents of affirmative action have donned the mantle of the civil-rights movement, claiming direct descent from Martin Luther King Jr. The idea, presumably, is to insulate themselves against charges of racism even as they pursue policies certain to prove detrimental to large numbers of blacks.
To achieve this feat, they define King as a champion of "colorblind laws," and reduce the civil-rights movement to an effort to end the classification of citizens by race. In this way, programs that take race into account can be demonized as violations of King's memory. Proponents of the ingeniously named California Civil Rights Initiative, which would forbid all state government affirmative-action policies, routinely invoke the sentence from King's "I Have a Dream" speech looking forward to the day his children would be judged not by the "color of their skin" but by "the content of their character." Calling for the abolition of affirmative action in his book, The End of Racism: Principles for a Multicultural Society, Dinesh D'Souza claims to be following in King's footsteps even though he advocates repealing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, one of King's crowning achievements.
Ahigh or low point in this invention of a usable King came in May. Clint Bolick, a prominent Washington conservative and frequent spokesperson for the anti-affirmative action view, used the centenary of the Supreme Court's Plessy vs. Ferguson decision (which upheld racial segregation) to argue that since segregation was a system of "racial classification," affirmative action is its modern equivalent. Thus, in Bolick's view, opponents, not proponents, of affirmative action are King's legitimate heirs.
But the revisionists are quite wrong. His writing and actions make it clear that Martin Luther King Jr. was a strong supporter of what today would be called "affirmative action." The phrase itself was not widely used during his lifetime, but King spoke repeatedly of granting blacks special preferences in jobs and education to compensate for past discrimination.
In Why We Can't Wait, published in 1963 as the movement to dismantle segregation reached its peak, King observed that many white supporters of civil rights "recoil in horror" from suggestions that blacks deserved not merely colorblind equality but "compensatory consideration." But, he pointed out, "special measures for the deprived" were a well-established principle of American politics. The GI Bill of Rights offered all sorts of privileges to veterans. Blacks, given their long "siege of denial," were even more deserving than soldiers of "special, compensatory measures."
King said much the same thing in his last book. Where Do We Go From Here was published in 1967, and in the intervening four years, King's optimism had given way to foreboding prompted by the emergence of a white backlash and the realization that combating the economic plight of black America would prove far more difficult than eliminating segregation. He called for a series of programs, including full employment and a guaranteed annual income, to uplift the poor of all races. But he saw no contradiction between measures aimed at fighting poverty in general and others that accorded blacks "special treatment" because of the unique injustices they had suffered. "A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years," he wrote, "must now do something special for him."
Throughout the 1960s, King targeted both economic and racial inequality. His policy proposals embraced a variety of approaches, from colorblind assaults on poverty to demands, such as setting specific goals for the employment of blacks by private companies, that today would be called "racial quotas."
In one sense, what King believed has little bearing on the 1990s. The civil-rights era has long passed, and affirmative action must be defended or attacked on its merits. King aside, what is most striking in current discussions of civil rights, race, and affirmative action is the absence of any sense of history. Segregation was not simply a matter of racial classification (or "thinking by race," as Justice Antonin Scalia has written) but part of a complex system of racial subordination whose political, economic, and social elements all reinforced one another. The slogan of the 1963 March on Washington was not colorblind laws but "Jobs and Freedom," and the movement's ultimate goal, King insisted, was to "make freedom real and substantive" for black Americans by absorbing them "into the mainstream of American life."
This goal remains as elusive today as it was during King's lifetime. King's real heirs are those who, like him, see affirmative action not as a panacea or an end in itself, but as one of many ways to reduce the gap between blacks and the rest of American society bequeathed to us by history.
Eric Foner, the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, is co-author of America's Reconstruction: People and Politics After the Civil War.