Remembering Dr. King’s Dream

Robert Alt

August 28, 1997

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. led a march on Washington, culminating with the speech that came to define the civil rights movement: “I Have A Dream.” Today, 34 years to the day later, Jesse Jackson, joined by numerous civil rights groups, is scheduled to lead a march across the Golden Gate Bridge commemorating King’s speech in a protest against California’s Prop. 209.

It is ironic that Jesse Jackson and other civil rights groups have chosen King’s speech as the backdrop for a protest against Prop. 209 and the end of race-conscious admissions at the University of California. It is in this speech, after all, that King made his justly famous plea that men be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. This would seem a speech to which Jackson and other contemporary civil rights groups would not want to draw attention, for the purpose of today’s march— indeed the current purpose of their movement—is little more than the promotion of judging Americans by race.

King’s speech 34 years ago served as a driving force behind the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Today, however, Jackson marches in opposition to a provision of the California Constitution—enacted by the voters as the California Civil Rights Initiative—that by prohibiting both discrimination and preferences mirrors the language and purpose of Civil Rights Act.

Civil rights groups, led by the ACLU, mounted a vigorous legal attack, filing a lawsuit the day after it passed. The ACLU succeeded in gaining an injunction from a friendly judge; however in April, a panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against their logically incoherent argument that equal protection somehow violates equal protection.

Last week, the full Ninth Circuit, widely regarded the most liberal circuit in the nation, refused even to hear an appeal. The ACLU will file its final appeal before the Supreme Court, which will probably choose not to hear the case, or will, based upon its recent rulings on race, find overwhelmingly against them. In the meantime, unless a stay is granted by Circuit Justice O’Connor, Prop. 209 becomes enforceable today.

Having failed in the courts, Jackson is appealing to public opinion by busing people into San Francisco in hopes of producing thousands of marchers in favor of race-based preferences. Mr. Jackson seems to forget that the court of public opinion in California has also already ruled against preferences: 4.7 million Californians marched to the voting booth last year, and in a lasting tribute to King’s Dream speech, constitutionalized their opposition to individuals being judged by skin color.

The second target of Jackson’s protest is the decline in minority admissions to UC graduate schools, arising from the UC Regents’ 1995 vote to end racial and gender-based preferences.

The outrage that followed the reports of declining minority admissions led civil rights groups to file a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) claiming that the use of academic achievement as admission criteria is discriminatory if it impairs racial proportionalism.

The Office of Civil Rights, led by Norma Cantu, has promised a thorough investigation into whether the use of grades and test scores is discriminatory. That OCR should take up such a frivolous case is not surprising. Mrs. Cantu is a former employee of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the organization that filed the complaint. She has a record for, shall we say, unique legal interpretations, typified by her attempt earlier this year to strong-arm Texas legislators into ignoring the decision in Hopwood v. Texas, the landmark 1996 case that eliminated the use of race as a factor in collegiate admissions in the Fifth Circuit.

Far from acting on her own, Mrs. Cantu has the support of President Clinton, who publicly stated that he thought it would be possible, with the help of the OCR and the Justice Department, to get around the new colorblind policies in Texas and California. This statement—which simultaneously disregards both a state constitution and a federal appellate court decision—demonstrates how far the administration is willing to stretch the law to satisfy favored interest groups.

Taken together, Jackson and his fellow civil rights leaders’ stance on these issues stands in stark contrast to King’s Dream speech. It is not without consequence that King delivered his Dream speech in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial. Lincoln did more than guide America through the Civil War and remove the ugly scar of slavery; he reminded America of the promise of its founding: that all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. While King may have expressed contrary ideas at other times, when he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and professed his dream that men be judged by character rather than color, he too reminded the nation of the promise of equal protection bestowed upon future generations.

On this, the 34th anniversary of King’s speech, Jackson and his fellow civil rights leaders would do well to truly remember King’s dream.

Robert Alt is an Adjunct Fellow of the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.