Does the NAACP Still Believe In King’s Dream?

Lucas Morel

August 1, 1999

Today marks the 36th anniversary of the greatest American oration of the 20th century, Martin Luther King’s "I Have a Dream" speech. It put the "citizenship rights" of black Americans on the national agenda, and paved the way for the passage of serious civil rights legislation for the first time in almost a hundred years. But a generation later, Americans still wrestle with the meaning of civil rights in an increasingly diverse society. Strangely enough, the nation’s most famous civil rights group offers little that builds on King’s clarion call to protect the "citizenship rights" of all.

Founded in 1910 as a reaction to public indifference to the lynching of blacks, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People became the premier civil rights organization in America. Through persistent court battles, they helped black citizens secure the equal protection of the law in housing, voting, and education.

Unfortunately, the NAACP has forgotten what made its legal victories possible: a focus on the individual rights of black Americans. What blacks needed most from government then, and still need now, is the protection of what they share equally with all other Americans-the rights they possess by virtue of their humanity and their citizenship in the United States. This was King’s strategy for the better part of his public life, a strategy that resonated with a national audience when he spoke of his dream being "deeply rooted in the American dream."

No element of King’s dream has been cited more often than his hope that his 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." Most commentators highlight its principle of nondiscrimination on the basis of race, and well they should. But few have noted that King does not dream of an America that refuses to judge his children, only one where fellow citizens do not use race as the measure of his children’s worth. By emphasizing individual rights, which include not being discriminated against simply because of your race, King found common ground for the nation’s diverse citizenry to occupy without jeopardizing any individual’s opportunity to succeed.

The NAACP, on the other hand, now promotes racial or group identification as the key to success for "colored people" in America. Their premise is that blacks are still victims of pervasive racism, and therefore must band together as blacks to defend against perceived threats to their livelihood. A recent example is the NAACP lawsuit against gun manufacturers for "oversupplying handguns" to "minority communities."

However, it’s not gun proliferation but dysfunctional families that have led to gang hegemony in many minority neighborhoods. In keeping with King’s concern for the "character" of his own children, the NAACP should have taken the lead in condemning "entitlements" that relieved parents of their obligation to become self-respecting and self-supporting heads of households. Until inner city families regain their moral composure, and until police redouble their efforts to control gang violence, law-abiding blacks will require not less but more access to firearms to defend themselves from the lawless in their midst.

Simply put, the NAACP no longer speaks the language of individual, God-given rights. What a shame, for it is a language that originated with the American Founders, reached its peak in the utterances of Abraham Lincoln, and has yet to be surpassed in principle or eloquence since King shared his "dream" with the nation.

King’s speech that fateful August 28, 1963 came at a time when only five blacks served in Congress. It expressed a faith in American whites to do right by the Constitution and their consciences. This they did, most notably by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. But today, Americans of all stripes lack the conviction that their Constitution holds the key to healing the nation’s racial divide.

This was not the understanding of the escaped slave and abolitionist speaker extraordinaire Frederick Douglass, who once declared, "There is no negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own constitution." King echoed this sentiment before the Lincoln Memorial: "When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir."

For that promise to hold true, we must not see ourselves as the NAACP does: as members of competing interest groups based on race. Instead, as individuals equally endowed with the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," we should ask our government to protect only those rights that we share with our neighbor. Only then will "the jangling discords of our nation" be transformed into "a beautiful symphony of brotherhood."

Lucas Morel teaches politics at Washington and Lee University and is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.