On Martin Luther King Jr.'s actual birthday, Jan. 15, the issue of affirmative action was back in the news. The Bush administration decided to support lawsuits by two white students against the University of Michigan's race-based affirmative action programs.
The irony is that President Bush and conservatives, who vehemently oppose such programs, repeatedly invoke King's name to prove that, if he were alive, he would be on their side. They latch onto King's famed line in his 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech in which he called on Americans to judge individuals by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.
Meanwhile, supporters of affirmative action claim that this deliberately distorts the spirit and intent of King's words.
They are both right. There is enough ambivalence in the few stray remarks King uttered on the issue to give ideological ammunition to both camps.
At the time, affirmative action had not seeped into the nation's vocabulary, and quotas and goals were not issues of public debate. When King spoke, he was not referring to discrimination in employment. He was referring to his children. He was worried that they would be denied equal opportunity because of legal segregation.
This was not a visionary declaration but a simple expression of parental concern.
With the passage of the civil rights bill in 1964, King realized that ending legal segregation wasn't enough. Integrating a motel or lunch counter did not provide jobs, improved housing or better schools for the black poor. The urban riots and the growing white backlash further heightened King's sense of urgency that something had to be done. But he remained ambivalent over how to tackle the problems of the urban poor.
In a Playboy magazine interview in 1965, he was asked whether he thought it was fair for the government to spend billions on special programs for blacks. King didn't hesitate: "I do indeed." He saw it as a moral imperative that the government "pay back" blacks for the centuries of slavery's uncompensated toil.
Yet King did not demand that the federal government create special economic programs exclusively for blacks. He claimed that black and white workers suffered equally when jobs were lost, and he tactfully called on labor to fight for jobs for all.
In those days, affirmative action was seen as a tool to prod employers not to hire the disadvantaged of all races, as King insisted, but to hire blacks. This sowed the seed of future public misunderstanding and created the huge opening some politicians have used to exploit the affirmative action backlash as a wedge issue.
The Playboy interview was the first and last time that King dealt directly with affirmative action. We mustn't blame him if he fumbled on the issue. Affirmative action had not stoked the passions that it does today.
The most important thing to remember is that there was no ambivalence in King's pursuit of justice and equality, even if his words are still used by others for and against him.