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 He Had a Dream 

August 28, 2003

It’s 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 haven’t 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 King’s 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 aren’t white, but whites aren’t afraid to go into Chinese neighborhoods. It’s long past time for liberals to get real about this, but an absurd liberal etiquette still inhibits public discussion of racial problems. We’re supposed to talk as if everything is Whitey’s fault.

As for “the content of their character” — the most famous phrase King ever coined — it’s awkward English, unidiomatic. It’s 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 you’re 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 you’re a liberal.

[Breaker quote: The content of King's character]Is this a defense of prejudice? Not exactly. It’s 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 don’t really know the content of Granny’s 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 wasn’t 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 wasn’t surprised, years later, when even his sympathetic biographers finally acknowledged King’s Marxist views and Communist associates. For years I’d been told by liberals that rumors of King’s leftism were “McCarthyite.”

Later we learned more about the content of King’s 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 women.

Now I’m 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 America’s 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, I’ve come to regard King as a rather repulsive character, peddling a “dream” that was only a fantasy even he didn’t really believe in. If others want to idolize him, let them. But it’s one thing to excuse his faults. It’s another to hold him up as a national hero, complete with his own holiday.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
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