He Had a Dream
August 28, 2003
Its now 40 years since Martin Luther King
Jr. delivered his famous I have a dream speech, the
highlight of the 1963 March on Washington. Today the speech is widely
regarded as one of the great orations of the twentieth century, but even
then I found it embarrassing, and I havent changed my mind.
In August 1963 I was about to
begin my senior year in high school. My political views were fairly liberal;
I barely knew what a conservative was. I sympathized broadly with King
and the civil rights movement.
But I was also reading
Shakespeare and other English classics, and I rubbed my eyes when people
praised Kings speech as eloquent. It struck me as
empty, gauche grandiloquence. When he said he dreamed of an America
where his children would be judged not by the color of their skin,
but by the content of their character, I winced.
Even then I knew that race is
more than skin color. It includes ingrained behavior patterns, which differ
from race to race. Only a false naivety pretends not to notice them. They
show up, for example, in rates of violent crime and other aberrant conduct.
Chinese people arent white, but whites arent afraid to go
into Chinese neighborhoods. Its long past time for liberals to get
real about this, but an absurd liberal etiquette still inhibits public
discussion of racial problems. Were supposed to talk as if
everything is Whiteys fault.
As for the content of
their character the most famous phrase King ever coined
its awkward English, unidiomatic. Its odd to speak
of character as having content. Why not just say, not
by their color, but by their character?
The fact is that color can
sometimes be a rough index of character. Ideally we should judge people
individually, and we do when we can, but when youre facing a
stranger you may not have time to do a thorough character study. His race
never justifies you in doing him wrong, but it may cause you to be
reasonably wary, even if youre a liberal.
this a defense of prejudice? Not exactly. Its a defense of some
common-sense empirical conclusions that liberals prefer to call
prejudices. Liberal etiquette dictates, even after 9/11, that airport
security people treat little white grandmothers with as much suspicion as
they do young Arab males. After all, we dont really know the
content of Grannys character, do we?
By 1963 my ardor for the civil
rights movement was already waning. I vaguely felt that the lunch-counter
sit-ins were going too far. It was one thing to protest state
discrimination, but another to encroach on private property and freedom of
association. My own self-respect taught me not to go where I
wasnt wanted. If people chose to exclude me from their property, I
respected their right to do so.
Where would men like King draw
the line? Nowhere, apparently. I wasnt surprised, years later, when
even his sympathetic biographers finally acknowledged Kings
Marxist views and Communist associates. For years Id been told by
liberals that rumors of Kings leftism were
Later we learned more about the
content of Kings character. His doctoral thesis was at least partly
a feat of plagiarism. He was an insatiable adulterer who, according to a
close friend, had spent the night before his murder in bed with two
Now Im willing to cut a
man some slack. A celebrity who spends much of his time on the road,
with women throwing themselves at him, is bound to face frequent
temptations most men are spared (or would envy). Even a clergyman might
succumb now and then.
But King seems to have regarded
enjoying the favors of bonus women as part of his job description. He
traded on his prestige as one of Americas most famous ministers,
and, like John Kennedy and Bill Clinton, he involved those around him in the
corruption of covering up for him. Yet he kept putting his whole movement
at risk with his scandalous personal life.
All in all, Ive come to
regard King as a rather repulsive character, peddling a
dream that was only a fantasy even he didnt really
believe in. If others want to idolize him, let them. But its one thing
to excuse his faults. Its another to hold him up as a national hero,
complete with his own holiday.