Martin Luther King and Affirmative Action


William J. Bennett’s Aug. 12 commentary is the latest example of a recent trend in conservative public relations--opponents of affirmative action claiming to be the heirs of Martin Luther King Jr. They invoke the sentence from King’s 1963 speech looking forward to the day his children would be judged by “the content of their character,” not the “color of their skin.”

Bennett conveniently ignores one fact--King was a strong supporter of affirmative action. In “Why We Can’t Wait,” published in 1963, he argued that given the long history of American racism, blacks fully deserved “special, compensatory measures” in jobs, education and other realms. Four years later, in “Where Do We Go From Here?” he wrote: “A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for him.”

Bennett’s piece not only misrepresents King but reduces the civil rights movement’s complex outlook to the quest for a “colorblind society.” In fact, as King wrote, the movement’s goal was far broader: to “make freedom real and substantive” for blacks by overcoming pervasive racial inequality and absorbing them “into the mainstream of American life.” King saw affirmative action as one of many measures--some colorblind, some not--needed to counteract the legacy of centuries of discrimination.



DeWitt Clinton Professor of History, Columbia University

New York

* Bennett correctly notes that affirmative action is “race-based discrimination” that has no place in a society that aspires to judge individuals by the content of their character rather than by the color of their skin. During this convention season it’s nice to see that Republicans aren’t wrong about everything.


Los Angeles

* Re “A Convenient Interpretation of a Dream,” Commentary, Aug. 13:

Offering no logical argument or empirical proof, Karen Grigsby Bates tells readers that 1996 California would look like 1956 Alabama if the “California civil rights initiative” (Prop. 209) passes in November. To support her absurd claims (that we face a return to “colored only” drinking fountains, for example), she relies on her personal interpretation of what King was arguing for when he talked about being judged by the content of one’s character instead of the color of one’s skin.

Grigsby Bates relies on personal attacks on the character of the authors of Prop. 209 and its leading supporters, including a wholly mean-spirited depiction of Bennett’s morals. She merely illustrates that she has a third-rate intellect to match her emotional argument for the morality of continued racial preferences--behavior that one doubts King would applaud.


Santa Monica