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A Poignant Anniversary
Fifty years after King’s famous speech, too many are still judged by the color of their skin.

Martin Luther King delivers his "I Have a Dream" speech.

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Thomas Sowell

The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and of the Reverend Martin Luther King’s memorable “I have a dream” speech, is a time for reflections — some inspiring, and some painful and ominous.

At the core of Dr. King’s speech was his dream of a world in which people would not be judged by the color of their skin, but by “the content of their character.” Judging individuals by their individual character is at the opposite pole from judging how groups are statistically represented among employees, college students, or political figures. Yet many — if not most — of those who celebrate the “I have a dream” speech today promote the directly opposite approach of group preferences, especially those based on skin color.

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How consistent Martin Luther King himself was as he confronted the various issues of his time is a question that can be left for historians. His legacy to us is the “I have a dream” speech. What was historic about that speech was not only what was said but how powerfully its message resonated among Americans of that time across the spectrum of race, ideology, and politics. A higher percentage of Republicans than Democrats voted in Congress for both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

To say that that was a hopeful time would be an understatement. To say that many of those hopes have since been disappointed would also be an understatement. There has been much documented racial progress since 1963. But there has also been much retrogression, of which the disintegration of the black family has been central, especially among those at the bottom of the social pyramid.

Many people — especially politicians and activists — want to take credit for the economic and other advancement of blacks, even though a larger proportion of blacks rose out of poverty in the 20 years before 1960 than in the 20 years afterwards. But no one wants to take responsibility for the policies and ideologies that led to the breakup of the black family, which had survived centuries of slavery and generations of discrimination.

Many hopes were disappointed because those were unrealistic hopes to begin with. Economic and other disparities between groups have been common for centuries, in countries around the world — and many of those disparities have been, and still are, larger than the disparities between blacks and whites in America. Even when those who lagged behind have advanced, they have not always caught up, even after centuries, because others were advancing at the same time. But when blacks did not catch up with whites in America within a matter of decades, that was treated as strange — or even a sinister sign of crafty and covert racism.

Civil rights were necessary, but far from sufficient. Education and job skills are crucial, and the government cannot give you these things. All it can do is make them available. Race hustlers who blame all lags on the racism of others are among the obstacles to taking the fullest advantage of education and other opportunities. What does that say about the content of their character?

When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was pending in Congress, my hope was that it would pass undiluted, not because I thought it would be a panacea but, on the contrary, because “the bitter anticlimax that is sure to follow may provoke some real thought in quarters where slogans and labels hold sway at the moment.”

But the bitter anticlimax that did follow provoked no rethinking. Instead, it provoked all sorts of new demands. Judging everybody by the same standards came to be regarded in some quarters as “racist” because it precluded preferences and quotas. There are people today who talk “justice” when they really mean payback — including payback against people who were not even born when historic injustices were committed.

The nation has just been through a sensationalized murder trial in Florida, on which many people took fierce positions before a speck of evidence was introduced, based on nothing more than judging those involved by the color of their skin.

We have a long way to go to catch up to what Martin Luther King said 50 years ago. And we are moving in the opposite direction.

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. © 2013 Creators Syndicate, Inc.


MLK’s ‘I Have a Dream’ Speech
This past August 28 marked the 50th anniversary of Rev. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. King’s stirring words would be remembered as one of the most famous and influential speeches in American history. Here’s a look back.
King delivered his speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to a crowd of more than 200,000 who had gathered for the “Great March” in Washington, D.C.
King (center) joined other civil-rights leaders during one of the day’s marches.
King with some of the other speakers who addressed the crowd that day. From left: Whitney Young, Jr., of the Urban League; King; union leader Walter Reuther; Eugene Carson Blake of the National Council of Churches; and John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
King with Rabbi Joachim Prinz, president of the American Jewish Congress.
THE SPEECH: The burgeoning crowds surrounded the reflecting pool and stretched back toward the Washington Monument.
King spoke eloquently of the trials of the civil rights movement, the sacrifices of many in attendance, and the ongoing struggle for equality. But his words of hope and optimism for the future rang the loudest, and would echo through history.
Said King: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.”
“With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”
“When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last! Free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”
THE MARCH ON WASHINGTON: Known formally as the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” the August 28, 1963, event was organized to draw attention to continued racial discrimination and to advocate for government assistance to improve black unemployment.
Organizers of the rally met with President John Kennedy in the Oval Office earlier in the year to discuss the aims of the event. (Rev. King is seen third from left.)
A. Philip Randolph organized the march.
Other scenes from the day’s marches and rallies.
Some of the many faces of the marchers on that day.
Marchers gather around the reflecting pool.
FAMOUS FACES: The march drew many well-known entertainers and other figures who had been involved in the civil-rights movemment. Pictured, actor Sidney Poitier (left) and singer Harry Belafonte.
A journalist interviews Sammy Davis Jr. (at left) and NAACP executive Roy Wilkins.
Charlton Heston (center) and Marlon Brando (at right).
Actor Burt Lancaster speaks to the crowd.
Actor and activist Ossie Davis
Former professional basketball player Bill Russell (at left)
Famous musicians were also in attendance. Pictured, Peter, Paul and Mary entertain the crowd.
Folk musicians Joan Baez (left) and Bob Dylan
Odetta Holmes also performed.
Updated: Jan. 19, 2014

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