Dr. King: Quote, Unquote


Proponents of Proposition 209 have suggested Martin Luther King Jr. would support their attempt to derail affirmative action. They went so far as to prepare a television commercial containing a clip from King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The King estate protested, the spot was pulled--but not before successfully creating some confusion.

Fortunately, California need not rely on Ward Connerly to interpret for King. The civil rights leader left a record of his views: a body of speeches, interviews, books and sermons, many of which have been published in an anthology, “A Testament of Hope.”

Flip through it and one finds that, among other things, King said, “Whenever the issue of compensatory treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree; but he should ask nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic.”


He said, “A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for the Negro.”

He said, “A section of the white population, perceiving Negro pressure for change, misconstrues it as a demand for privileges rather than as a desperate quest for existence. The ensuing white backlash intimidates government officials who are already too timorous.”

He said, “Despite new laws, little has changed in the ghettos. The Negro is still the poorest American, walled in by color and poverty. The law pronounces him equal--abstractly--but his conditions of life are still far from equal to those of other Americans. . . . “

And he said this, in a Sunday morning sermon at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.:

The hour has come for everybody, for all institutions of the public sector and the private sector, to work to get rid of racism. And now if we are to do it we must honestly admit certain things and get rid of certain myths that have constantly been disseminated all over our nation.

One is the myth of time. It is the notion that only time can solve the problem of racial injustice. And there are those who often sincerely say to the Negro and his allies in the white community, “Why don’t you slow up? Stop pushing things so fast. Only time can solve the problem, and if you will just be nice and patient and continue to pray, in a hundred or two hundred years the problem will work itself out.”


. . . .Now there is another myth that still gets around; it is a kind of overreliance on the bootstrap philosophy. There are those who still feel that if the Negro is to rise out of poverty, if the Negro is to rise out of slum conditions, if he is to rise out of discrimination and segregation, he must do it all by himself. And so they say the Negro must lift himself by his own bootstraps.

They never stop to realize that no other ethnic group has been a slave on American soil. The people who say this never stop to realize that the nation made the black man’s color a stigma; but beyond this they never stop to realize that they owe a people who were kept in slavery 244 years.

In 1863 the Negro was told that he was free as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation being signed by Abraham Lincoln. But he was not given any land to make that freedom meaningful. It was something like keeping a person in prison for a number of years and suddenly discovering that that person is not guilty of the crime for which he was convicted. And you just go up to him and say, “Now you are free,” but you don’t give him any bus fare to get to town. . . .

And the irony of it all is that at the same time the nation failed to do anything for the black man--through an act of Congress--it was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest. . . . Not only did it give the land, it built land-grant colleges to teach them how to farm. Not only that, it provided county agents to further their expertise in farming. Not only that, as the years unfolded it provided low interest rates so that they could mechanize their farms. And to this day thousands of these very persons are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies every year not to farm.

And these are so often the very people who tell Negroes that they must lift themselves by their own bootstraps. It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.

We must come to see that the roots of racism are very deep in our country, and there must be something positive and massive in order to get rid of all the effects of racism and the tragedies of racial injustice.

These were King’s last public words on the subject. Four days later, he stepped onto a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., and was shot dead.