William J. Bennett, erstwhile secretary of education and drug czar, emerged this week as the new Republican designated hitter. In an article in the Wall Street Journal, he speciously attacked the Civil Rights Act of 1991 as a "quota bill."
Neither the message nor the forum was new; you can set your clock by how quickly the Wall Street Journal comes out against any meaningful civil rights legislation. In his article Bennett dutifully peddled the Journal's canard that Martin Luther King would be horrified at "quota bills," because all he ever wanted was "a color-blind society" in which people are judged "on the content of their character" and "not on the color of their skin." In effect, Bennett has endorsed a civil rights strategy of 1964.
This effort to transmogrify Martin Luther King Jr. is, to put it mildly, despicable. It is true that he uttered the words quoted above. But we must remember that King died in 1968. We cannot allow a person to become frozen in time, because if we do, even Abraham Lincoln becomes a racist.
King was a ground-breaker in a time when the ground was hard indeed. It is not generally recognized, for example, that during the struggle which brought him to the forefront, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King's initial demands were astonishingly paltry: (1) blacks would "voluntarily" continue to sit in the back of the bus if they were no longer required to give up their seats to white people, (2) black drivers would be assigned to buses in black neighborhoods, and (3) white drivers would treat black patrons with common courtesy.
By today's standards, such demands make King look like not a leader but an Uncle Tom. But since the Wall Street Journal and William J. Bennett seem so eager to embrace what King advocated in 1963, why don't they go all the way -- and embrace what King advocated in 1955? The reason: To do so would expose racism. Sophisticated racism, to be sure, but nevertheless, racism.