Keep King's words in context

January 19, 1998|By Ron Walters

AS we celebrate the federal holiday in honor of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. today, it is natural to consider how he is being interpreted now, and what he would be doing if he were alive today.

Surprisingly, in the public debate over social policy, King's words seem to be used more by conservatives than liberals.

For example, the famous line from King's ''I Have a Dream'' speech, about the necessity of people being judged by the ''content of their character,'' not the color of their skin, has been appropriated by some on the right to argue against affirmative action.

A dream deferred

This phrase in King's speech at the 1963 March on Washington has served some as an eloquent moral guide, rather than a ''dream'' of what could occur.

King was acutely aware of the fact that racism thwarted the probability that black people might be judged by their character then or in the near future.

He said the reason for the march was ''to dramatize a shameful condition,'' . . . ''We've come to our nation's capital to cash a check.'' He felt this was required because, ''America has given the Negro people a bad check; a check which has come back marked ''insufficient funds.''

So, at the least, the right-wing interpretation of his comments about ''character'' ignores the real conditions that placed severe limitations on the achievements of King's dream, then and now.

In many ways, the nature of the debate over race relations today is about how far black people have progressed since King so summed up their condition.

Some people insist discrimination has been erased. Fortified by this vision, they proceed to use King's words as the underlying basis for weakening government support for the disadvantaged.

They point out that when King spoke, 95 percent of black people did not make at least the national average family income, today 65 percent do. Then, 51 percent of blacks were officially poor, today 26 percent are.

Up from slavery

Blacks have experienced significant upward mobility thanks to better education and employment opportunities to the extent that the candidate most favored by whites for president is Colin Powell, an African-American. So, there is a level of public visibility and change in social circumstances that has given many Americans the feeling blacks are no longer subordinated in society.

The followers of King know that day has not come when black people are generally judged by the content of their character and not race. The reality of the black condition is that there is much more that must be done.

First, some 5 million people were not counted by the Census, mostly blacks and Hispanics, leaving a false picture of the actual numbers of people who are unemployed and living in poverty.

Second, the reality that one witnesses directly in most urban ghettoes is that of an inner-city wasteland produced by official neglect: There's a proliferation of open drug markets, growing homeless populations, an abundance of poverty and crime, shameful incarceration rates for black males and continuing and pervasive discrimination in every conceivable area of life that affects all classes of racial minorities. This suggests that the problem of progress is far less of a magnitude than reported.

Many of those on the political right who appropriate King's words use them as a convenient ploy against liberalism, ignoring the contradiction of his liberal compassion for the poor and the progressive thrust of his demand for social change.

Were he alive today, King would not align himself with those who created welfare reform. He would consider this to be a grossly immoral act, because even in the recent period of substantial economic growth, many people have been shifted from government support to low-wage jobs, which has simply expanded the ranks of the working poor, not solved the problem of poverty.

King would be a leader of the presidential commission on race, seeking to prompt interracial dialogue as well as serious action on the deep issues of racism.

And he would observe that the Office of Civil Rights in the Justice Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, created out of the black struggle for justice, now mainly serves white Americans.

End debate

In the debate over whether affirmative action should end, King would want the views of those affected by discrimination to be given priority.

One can only arrive at these conclusions by examining King's life and words in context.

Ron Walters, Ph.D., is a professor of Afro-American studies, government and politics and a senior scholar in the Academy of Leadership at the University of Maryland College Park.

Pub Date: 1/19/98

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