I have posted and reposted the following comments on Martin Luther King Day six or seven times over the past years (but who’s counting?). Since they still seem relevant here they are again.
On a past Martin Luther King day, several years ago, I noted (“Dishonoring Martin Luther King, Jr.”) that one of
the saddest commentaries on the sorry state of “civil rights” today — or at least how the straggling remnant of the civil rights movement and their liberal camp followers view civil rights today — is that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, most powerful and emblematic utterance — that he looks forward to the day when his children will be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin — has now become uncomfortably controversial among those who claim to honor him.
“Yet today, 50 years after King shared this vision during his most famous speech,” the Associated Press purports to report, “there is considerable disagreement over what it means.” Actually, that’s wrong. There can be no reasonable disagreement over what it means. The disagreement is over only whether that principle should be honored or rejected.
Over the years I’ve asked several times variations of the same question, such as “What Do We Honor When We Honor Martin Luther King (And Who Are ‘We?’).” I wrote there that protesters had objected to President Bush laying a wreath on King’s grave, nearly all of them criticizing him for betraying King by his opposition to racial preferences. Indeed, nothing seems to send preferentialists around the bend and over the top faster than critics of preferences quoting King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, as we always do. “And they always respond,” I noted in another post on the same theme (“Original Intent And Original Meaning [And Martin Luther King]), “with one version or another of ‘if King were alive today’ he would be a strong advocate of racial preferences.”
That post discussed the increasingly important distinction between “original intention” and “original meaning.” An overly simple way of illustrating this sometimes elusive distinction is to look at the debate over how to interpret the 8th Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. An original intent interpretation would say that the ban was limited to the specific punishments that those who wrote and then approved the Amendment in fact thought were cruel and unusual (you can see the problem already of determining a collective intention). An original meaning interpretation would also rely on historical evidence, but rather than asking what punishments the framers (for lack of a better term) had in mind it would examine the contemporary understanding of the words “cruel” and “unusual.” On this view, a particular punishment might well be unconstitutional even if the framers never considered it, so long as it fell within 18th century (not our) understanding of what those words mean.
I will close, at least for this Martin Luther King day, by repeating the conclusion of that post:
I have some reservations about this assertion, but on balance I suspect it is true. After all, all King’s followers, the NAACP (which had advocated a strong version of colorblindness in court for decade after decade), and virtually the entire Democratic party did an about face on colorblindness starting in the late 1960s, and there is no compelling reason to suppose that King himself would have stood against this trend.
Taking a page from the original meaning book, however, we can see that the proper response to the posthumous King’s probable position is, So what? even a persuasive prediction of a posthumous King’s views on the affirmative action debates that followed his death does not determine the meaning of the principle he evoked, either for his contemporaries or for subsequent generations…. Of course in this case the text in question is not so dense and opaque, like “due process” or even “equal protection.” What part of wanting people to be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin is so difficult to understand?
Now, King’s speech is not a part of the Constitution (at least not of its text), but it has achieved a well-deserved iconic stature. It gave voice to an understanding of equality that traces it roots back at least to some of the abolitionists, that achieved partial but limited success in the Reconstruction Amendments, and that, finally, was embedded in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the year following King’s delivery on the Mall.
Thus I beg to differ with a commenter on my King’s birthday post linked above. Begrudgingly, “[f]or arguments sake,” she was willing “to admit the possibility that one can disagree with another’s ideals while still honoring the person.” I believe those of us who continue to resent benefits or burdens being based on skin color are honoring the meaning of Martin Luther King’s ideals much more fully than preferentialists who argue that if he were alive today he would agree with them.
Writing, as I am, about fifteen minutes from Monticello, it seems all too obvious to me that there are some ideals that are not discredited simply because their authors fail to live up to them.
There is one difference. In Naples, Fla., I am now 15 hours from Monticello, not 15 minutes. But Jefferson’s and King’s ideals remain undiminished by whatever failures of their authors to live up to them.