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A dream dishonored after 30 years

NCR Staff

Certain phrases from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech are nearly as well-known to Americans today as lines from Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” Yet according to an expert on King, many Americans have forgotten -- or perhaps never knew -- what the civil rights leader’s now-familiar words meant to the man who uttered them.

The result, according to Roger D. Hatch, a professor of religion at Central Michigan University, is that King’s 1963 message has been twisted and exploited by opponents of civil rights.

Hatch summed up his findings in a paper delivered at this year’s national meeting of the American Academy of Religion, held in Orlando, Fla., in late November. The paper was titled “Martin Luther King Jr. After 30 Years: Trivializing, Distorting and Ignoring His Vision.”

King’s “I Have a Dream” speech became linked to the civil rights leader as no other words he uttered. Since he spoke them from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, his name is rarely uttered except in conjunction with the word dream.

Unfortunately, says Hatch, just as the Lorraine Hotel has become a civil rights museum, a monument to King’s assassination there on April 4, 1968, some of King’s most ardent ideals seem frozen in time.

Much has transpired to further the cause of racial equality since King’s death, but for some who were deeply inspired by his ringing call for justice in 1963 -- justice that “rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream” -- the distance of 30 years can be traced just as well by ambivalence, setbacks and political games as by any lasting signs of integration.

‘Silly season’ of nostalgia

The distortions are particularly evident, Hatch said, from Jan. 15, King’s birthday, through the end of Black History Month in February. Hatch calls this annual six-week period the “silly season” of King nostalgia -- a time when King is dishonored by efforts to honor him.

In a predictable array of winter rituals, Hatch said, “King is portrayed as a dreamer, as standing for motherhood, apple pie and Chevrolet.” Americans are subjected to “platitudinous, vacuous speeches” -- speeches that inspire good feelings and ignore the setbacks to racial equality that have marked the years since King’s death.

“You can buy every manner of kitschy item with Dr. King’s face on them,” Hatch said -- and pay for them with credit cards bearing Martin Luther King’s face.

One mark of the problem, he said, is the way King’s speech is often referenced today. All too frequently, Hatch said, it is by this line, which comes toward the end of King’s famous speech:

“I have a dream that my four 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.”

That line, when removed from the context of the rest of the speech, suggests that it is the character of the black person that is on trial rather than the character of a nation. Yet the speech, taken as a whole, is a harsh indictment of the national character, a demand for justice and equality in education, in housing and in access to the benefits of a free society historically denied to blacks.

The irony, Hatch said, is that King is not only dishonored but exploited. The “character” line has become a weapon in the hands of those who propose a colorblind society -- that is, people who oppose “racial justice in general and affirmative action in particular.” Some who use King’s words even hope to repeal the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination by any business or institution that receives federal contracts.

Prelude to harder work

King was no fool, Hatch said. He foresaw the hard work ahead. In his final book, Where Do We Go From Here, published in 1967, King recognized that the decade leading from the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott of 1955-’56 to adoption of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, however difficult an era, was only a prelude to harder work.

Those who came together in those years “were the best of America,” he wrote, but they were not “all of America.” Outside of those stalwart marchers and champions, “commitment is shallow,” he said. He knew that full educational equality, creating jobs and abolishing slums were far harder than passing laws.

“What King could not have foreseen,” he said, “was how formidable the opposition would be in resisting even those civil rights gains that King himself was able to see during his lifetime ... nor could he have foreseen how his opponents in the struggle for racial justice would twist his own words until they were routinely used as a weapon against measures seeking more racial justice.”

The undermining of King’s vision at the highest American political levels, according to Hatch, began with Gov. George Wallace, who personally stood at the door of the University of Alabama to keep black students from entering. It continues right up to the present, in the Clinton administration, he said.

Among highlights of the opposition:

  • Wallace made bids for the U.S. presidency in four successive elections from 1964 to 1975. Though unsuccessful in gaining the highest office, he succeeded in breaking up the Roosevelt coalition in the Democratic party and galvanized a group of voters who would later be known as “Reagan Democrats.”
  • Richard Nixon sought to divide white and black voters by portraying the Democratic Party as the black party. He ousted or fired officials who favored enforcing desegregation laws, including Holy Cross Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, retired president of the University of Notre Dame who chaired the Civil Rights Commission. Nixon fought vigorously against “busing,” the new code word for “race,” vowing to oppose it at all costs.
  • Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, opposed affirmative action in universities and opposed busing as a means of desegregating schools, even when ordered by the courts.
  • Jimmy Carter, Ford’s successor, sent mixed messages on race, appointing many black Americans to government and judicial positions. But he also named Griffin Bell as attorney general. Bell belonged to two segregated men’s clubs in Atlanta and had tried to block school desegregation in Georgia.
  • Ronald Reagan symbolically opened his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., where four civil rights workers had been killed in 1964, and called for a return to states’ rights. His “politics of racial backlash” included a judicial campaign against affirmative action.
  • George Bush continued Reagan’s anti-affirmative action agenda and became the first president to veto a civil rights bill. But, said Hatch, his “most cynical and perhaps most long-lasting move was the 1991 appointment of Clarence Thomas” to the Supreme Court. The conservative Thomas, a black man who opposes affirmative action, took the seat previously held by the liberal Thurgood Marshall, architect of the civil rights movement’s legal strategy.

As for education, the “enduring legacy” of the Reagan-Bush era is a “retreat from school desegregation as a goal,” Hatch said.

  • While President Bill Clinton has pushed programs that would reduce racial discrimination in education, job training and health care, and appointed blacks to high posts, he has also been responsible for eliminating traditional welfare, rejecting race-specific solutions to problems related to urban poverty and advocating capital punishment for “an ever expanding list of federal crimes.” The president went so far in a talk to black ministers in 1993 as to suggest that if King were alive today he would be backing Clinton’s most recent crime bill.

Clinton advocates personal responsibility -- a theme, Hatch said, that is “reserved exclusively for speeches before black audiences.”

Twisting his words

Such political maneuvering is often given a gloss of justice when King’s own words are twisted, taken out of context and watered down, Hatch said. “Opponents of King’s view of racial justice have tried to get the image of King the dreamer to crowd out and overpower every other aspect of King’s life and work.”

Twisting language, Hatch said, was part of the campaign in California two years ago for Proposition 209, which prohibited public universities from considering race in admissions decisions. King’s words are distorted to suggest that King would have favored what the Reagan administration called “colorblindness” -- that is, denying blacks an edge through affirmative action programs. Opponents of affirmative action unabashedly assert that the goal of abolishing preferences based on race and gender is in keeping with King’s dream of a colorblind America.

In a further assault on language, Ward Connerly, a black businessman from Sacramento, Calif., and others have formed the American Civil Rights Institute, an organization whose name suggests the opposite of what it stands for: promoting repeal of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Affirmative action

Another example, Hatch said, is a recent book by Terry Eastland, Reagan administration activist, called Ending Affirmative Action: The Case for Colorblind Justice. Throughout the book, Hatch said, Eastland uses lines from Martin Luther King’s 1963 speech and other examples from the civil rights movement in support for his argument that affirmative action is “a bargain with the devil.”

Yet, said Hatch, the Sunday before King was shot in 1968, he gave a sermon denouncing the “bootstrap philosophy” -- the belief that blacks can pull themselves out of poverty -- without aid from society. The sermon was titled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.”

When conservatives quote from the 1963 speech to advocate “colorblindness,” they ignore the core of the message: King’s portrait of blacks shackled by segregation and discrimination and mired in poverty, said Hatch.

In many ways, he said, America today is no closer, and possibly further removed, from the realization of King’s dream.

Setbacks to school desegregation under an increasingly conservative Supreme Court have prompted almost a return to the 102-year-old doctrine of equal but segregated schools, Hatch said.

Affirmative action has been severely limited in the courts and what laws remain are under continued assault.

Meanwhile, those who remember King and rallied to his vision in the 1960s are getting older. To many of a younger generation, the civil rights leader is one-dimensional, another face in a history book.

King knew that the road to full racial equality, to a just society, would be hard, Hatch said. What he didn’t know was how hard it would be just to keep from losing ground.

National Catholic Reporter, January 15, 1999