This morning’s Washington Post features a major story about a brewing battle between conservative television host Glenn Beck and civil rights activist Al Sharpton over the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. Both men plan to hold rallies in Washington, D.C. on August 28, 2010, the 47th anniversary of the March on Washington, during which King delivered his celebrated “I Have A Dream” speech. The question, as the Post’s headline suggests, is: “Who Owns August 28?”
Beck, who has enraged many with his comment that President Barack Obama harbors “a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture,” claims that “divine providence” led him to choose August 28 as a day to hold a “Restoring Honor” rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. He declared, “Whites don’t own Abraham Lincoln. Blacks don’t own Martin Luther King.” And he called for a return to King’s admonition to “judge a man by the content of his character.” Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, told the Post’s DeNeen Brown that Beck’s August 28 rally at the Lincoln Memorial “is insulting,” because that day and place are for commemorating the civil rights struggle not for promoting Glenn Beck’s vision for America.
In the debates over affirmative action in higher education, conservative opponents of the policy such as Ward Connerly have often invoked King’s dream that “my four little 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” to suggest that racial preferences are a departure from King’s ideal. Likewise, Hoover Institution fellow Shelby Steele’s 1990 critique of affirmative action policies was entitled, simply, The Content of Our Character.
Many liberals, like the well-respected dean of U.C. Berkeley’s law school, Christopher Edley, Jr. say the “content of character” quotation has been taken out of context. Edley argues that as a matter of historical record, “King spoke approvingly of race-conscious affirmative action,” and cites a passage from King’s 1964 book, Why We Can’t Wait, in which King says: “It is impossible to create a formula for the future which does not take into account that our society has been doing something special against the Negro for hundreds of years.”
But the truth of King’s position is more complicated than either Connerly or Edley suggest.
In Why We Can’t Wait and in 1967 testimony before the Kerner Commission, King did call for “compensatory consideration,” noting, “if a man is entered at the starting line in a race three hundred years after another man, the first would have to perform some impossible feat in order to catch up with his fellow runner.” But instead of urging adoption of a special program for blacks, as some civil rights leaders had done, King called for a color-blind Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged: “While Negroes form the vast majority of America’s disadvantaged, there are millions of white poor who would also benefit from such a bill.” King continued, “It is a simple matter of justice that America, in dealing creatively with the task of raising the Negro from backwardness, should also be rescuing a large stratum of the forgotten white poor.” King knew that class-based approaches would disproportionately benefit victims of historic discrimination without violating the colorblind ideal, and he worried that race-specific programs would sever the progressive coalition in America. In my book, The Remedy, I quote from a letter King wrote to the freelance editor for Why We Can’t Wait:
“Any ‘Negro Bill of Rights’ based on the concept of compensatory treatment as a result of the years of cultural and economic deprivation resulting from racial discrimination must give greater emphasis to the alleviation of economic and cultural backwardness on the part of the so-called ‘poor white.’ It is my opinion that many white workers whose economic condition is not too far removed from the economic condition of his black brother, will find it difficult to accept a ‘Negro Bill or Rights,’ which seeks to give special consideration to the Negro in the context of unemployment, joblessness, etc and does not take into sufficient account their plight (that of the white worker).”
To be sure, Beck and modern civil rights groups are not equally wrong in claiming King’s mantle. Beck’s hateful comments about Obama’s attitude toward whites couldn’t be further from King’s commitment to truth and racial reconciliation. And while the civil rights movement’s embrace of racial preferences may veer from King’s emphasis on economic compensation, Beck affirmatively rejects both racial and economic amends for our nation’s history of discrimination. Beck told his audience that a church which includes reference to “social justice” or “economic justice” should be avoided.
But on August 28 – and throughout the year – it is important to remember accurately King’s vision for a way forward.