Detroit News columnist Henry Payne took a moment yesterday to reflect upon the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's March on Washington and carefully explains why he thinks King would be shocked and aghast by the civil rights movement's support for affirmative action.
Payne says King would oppose affirmative action because of the "not be judged by the color of their skin but by their character" line from his "I Have A Dream" speech. The problem is the historical record doesn't support that premise.
King also said and wrote a lot of other things in his all-too-brief lifetime, many of them offer support for what we now call affirmative action.
Slate: 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."
Four years later King's words in the 1967 tract "Where Do We Go From Here" were even clearer on the subject: "A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for him."
That kind of sounds like affirmative action. Now, true, you'll never see King refer to such compensatory policies as affirmative action and with good reason. Affirmative action as we know it was essentially created by the Nixon Administration (look up Arthur Fletcher and the Philadelphia Plan) in the years following King's assassination.
One is also unlikely to find John Quincy Adams writing about NASA. Adams, however, given his support for federally-funded scientific expeditions and research, it's unreasonable to assume (if he were alive in modern America) Adams would oppose NASA.
The same standard applies to King. Judging by the (ahem) content of speeches and writings, King believed special measures must be taken to level the racial playing field made uneven by centuries of slavery and institutional racism.
Whether or not affirmative action programs are necessary policies in 2013 is certainly a fair question. However, it cannot be answered by pulling a couple flowery quotes from a Martin Luther King speech and calling it a day.
We're better off leaving the words of history to history and focusing on the here and now, starting with the Brookings Institute's new report on social mobility among African-Americans.
Brookings: Racial gaps in education, employment and wealth reflect the disproportionate representation of black families at the bottom of the income scale. But an urgent question remains: why, in 2013, is the income distribution so skewed by race?
One answer is that black rates of upward social mobility are lower. Black children are more likely to be born into poverty than white children; but they are also less likely to escape. More than half of black adults raised at the bottom of the income scale remain stuck there as adults, compared to a third of whites.
This harsh reality suggests African-Americans haven't yet been offered the "compensatory" tools necessary to overcome what King called the "siege of denial." Right-wingers are often quick to consider these facts, point to the 1965 Moynihan Report, and dismiss the whole thing with a clever line about family values. Of course, that is to intentionally misread Moynihan, as Salon's Joan Walsh rightly points out.
Salon: First of all, while there were things to find objectionable in Moynihan’s 1965 report “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” he makes a passionate case that it was the legacy of slavery, the persistence of racism, black male persecution and generations of poverty that had caused the so-called black family crisis – not the other way around.
Walsh adds that Moynihan's own prescriptions sound exactly like the policies right-wingers loathe: "Working for Johnson’s Labor Department, Moynihan proposed public works jobs and affirmative action measures, as well as a guaranteed national income, to lift black families, whether they were headed by one or two parents, out of poverty. Later, under Richard Nixon (a career move that sealed his reputation as a proto neo-conservative), he again proposed a guaranteed family income."
Affirmative action critics have rightly pointed out that so many of these programs seemed to have calcified in the 1970s and therefore currently only have a marginal positive effect. That's a valid point, but it doesn't justify declaring the playing field sufficiently leveled in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
In any case, while the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington is as good a time as any discuss if we've reached King's proverbial mountaintop (or how much further we must climb), to suggest King's record is that of an affirmative action opponent is not only disrespectful to his legacy, it does violence to history.