A Leader Emerges in the Affirmative Action Debate

Josh Kirk

July 1, 1997

On Wednesday, February 12, 1997, Lincoln’s Birthday, a dinner was held in Washington, D.C. to honor Ward Connerly. He was presented with the Lincoln Leadership Award for Civic Virtue in recognition of his courage, leadership, and integrity during the campaign for the passage of the California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), also known as Proposition 209.

Ward Connerly, a black Sacramento businessman, served as co-chairman of the CCRI, a measure that calls for the banning of racial, ethnic, and gender-based preferences in state education, contracting, and employment. Connerly was pleased by the initiative’s decisive 54 to 46 percent margin of victory on November 5, which illustrates that the enlightened people of California still hold the fundamental belief "that all men are created equal." Connerly feels that they have "proclaimed commitment to equal opportunity to all and special preferences to none" ("Redifining America" audio cassette). Connerly believes that the passing of Proposition 209 is a "victory that belongs to our children and to our grandchildren," and that it is a "victory not for whites but for all people."

Unfortunately, many people do not share his opinion. Throughout his efforts on the campaign for the passage of Proposition 209, Connerly encountered a great deal of heated opposition arising from Reverend Jesse Jackson and other African-Americans who accused him of attempting to undermine the efforts of the late Dr. King and the entire Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. Connerly has been labeled a "disgrace" and a "sellout" to his own race by the opposers of the controversial proposition. As proven by his genuine words and actions, however, he is anything but a "sellout" or "disgrace." He is a man who fights for his beliefs and puts himself on the line. He exposes his person and character to heated opposition in order to accomplish his goal for society. He is a courageous warrior who desperately hopes to see a day when all are truly given an "equal opportunity" and guaranteed the "equal protection of the laws" exte
nded to all Americans, not just blacks, by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Connerly hopes that what has been accomplished in California by Proposition 209 will soon give birth to similar anti-affirmative action measures nationwide and that the government will no longer impose artificial aids and barriers in order to maintain a predetermined order in American society. As Connerly proclaims, "Each of us is responsible for our own conduct," and minorities need to stop blaming failure on the oppression of a "racist society." As he says, the "greatest threat to our society is the lack of respect for those different than us. If we are to form a unified nation, we must see all as equals."

Proposition 209 presented, for the first time in the three decade history of affirmative action programs, an opportunity for the American people to voice their opinion on the highly controversial policy. Although California voters supported the proposition by a promising margin, Connerly was discouraged to find that the vote "came down along racial lines," illustrating that work still needs to be done in order for the American people to unite and advance as a nation. As he explains: "American democracy is an experiment to see if different races can merge together to become one nation under God." The passing of Proposition 209, whose key provision states that: "The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group, on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting," is undoubtedly a pivotal step in our quest for
a unified nation and the success of the American experiment.

I was fortunate enough to meet Mr. Ward Connerly after the honorary February 12 dinner and was able to speak with him briefly. I told him that I was inspired by his efforts. He thanked me and said that he wished that he received that same support and encouragement from blacks as he did from whites. When I shook his hand, I could feel the strength of his cause and the pains of his endeavors within his very grasp. I admire Ward Connerly and his work immensely, and I am certain that our nation could benefit greatly from other individuals who share his courage, integrity, and leadership. If his assertion is correct, "nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come," than the strength of a proposition that ends preferential treatment in our society is left unparalleled.

Joshua Kirk is a freshman from Lorain, Ohio, majoring in Political Science.