Allan Favish is a Los Angeles-based attorney whose focus is on General Insurance Defense and Litigation Insurance Coverage/Reinsurance & Bad Faith Litigation. A UCLA graduate, he received his J.D. at Hastings College of Law in 1981.
In "Stolen Dream" (Slate, July 26), Eric Foner writes that Martin Luther King's "writing and actions make it clear that [he] was a strong supporter of what today would be called 'affirmative action.' The phrase itself was not widely used during his lifetime, but King spoke repeatedly of granting blacks special preferences in jobs and education to compensate for past discrimination."
Foner distorts the historical record by using tiny excerpts of King's writing. The truth lies in larger excerpts.
In reading these excerpts keep in mind that when King spoke about compensation for "the Negro" he was speaking at a time when so many black individuals alive at the time he spoke did deserve compensation for actual injustices inflicted upon them, as specific individuals, by specific entities, e.g., schools, potential employers, etc.
King was not always as precise in his writing as he should have been, but there are strong indications that when he talked about compensation for "American Negroes" he was still rooted in the notion that a black victim of a racial injustice deserved compensation from the wrongdoer because the victim suffered an injustice, not because the victim was black and that the compensation should come from the wrongdoer, not an innocent party.
The common law never embraced the principle that when A commits a wrong against B, because of B's skin color, than C deserves a remedy at the expense of D, simply because C shares B's skin color, where D is an innocent individual who simply shares A's skin color.
After several pages of discussion in his book, "Why We Can't Wait," King does NOT put forward a race-based "compensation" plan. Rather, he puts forward an economic class-based plan. King wrote:
In this way, the nation was compensating the veteran for his time lost, in school or in his career or in business. Such compensatory treatment was approved by the majority of Americans. Certainly the Negro has been deprived . Few people consider the fact that, in addition to being enslaved for two centuries, the Negro was, during all those years, robbed of the wages of his toil. No amount of gold could provide an adequate compensation for the exploitation and humiliation of the Negro in America down through the centuries. Not all the wealth of this affluent society could meet the bill. Yet a price can be placed on unpaid wages. The ancient common law has always provided a remedy for the appropriation of the labor of one human being by another. This law should be made to apply for American Negroes. The payment should be in the form of a massive program by the government of special, compensatory measures which could be regarded as a settlement in accordance with the accepted practice of common law. Such measures would certainly be less expensive than any computation based on two centuries of unpaid wages and accumulated interest.
I am proposing, therefore, that, just as we granted a GI Bill of Rights to war veterans, America launch a broad-based and gigantic Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged, our veterans of the long siege of denial.
Such a bill could adapt almost every concession given to the returning soldier without imposing an undue burden on our economy. A Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged would immediately transform the conditions of Negro life. The most profound alteration would not reside so much in the specific grants as in the basic psychological and motivational transformation of the Negro. I would challenge skeptics to give such a bold new approach a test for the next decade. I contend that the decline in school dropouts, family breakups, crime rates, illegitimacy, swollen relief rolls and other social evils would stagger the imagination. Change in human psychology is normally a slow process, but it is safe to predict that, when a people is ready for change as the Negro has shown himself ready today, the response is bound to be rapid and constructive.
While Negroes form the vast majority of America's disadvantaged, there are millions of white poor who would also benefit from such a bill. The moral justification for special measures for Negroes is rooted in the robberies inherent in the institution of slavery. Many poor whites, however, were the derivative victims of slavery. As long as labor was cheapened by the involuntary servitude of the black man, the freedom of white labor, especially in the South, was little more than a myth. It was free only to bargain from the depressed base imposed by slavery upon the whole labor market. Nor did this derivative bondage end when formal slavery gave way to the de-facto slavery of discrimination. To this day the white poor also suffer deprivation and the humiliation of poverty if not of color. They are chained by the weight of discrimination, though its badge of degradation does not mark them. It corrupts their lives, frustrates their opportunities and withers their education. In one sense it is more evil for them, because it has confused so many by prejudice that they have supported their own oppressors.
Martin Luther King, Jr., "Why We Can't Wait," pages 137-138, published by Mentor (Penguin Books, New York, 1963).
Additionally, King was interviewed for Playboy's January, 1965, issue by Alex Haley. In the following excerpt you will notice that King states that his economic development plan is not restricted to blacks, but is for all poor Americans. Despite King's clarity on this point, notice how Haley keeps phrasing it as a preference plan for "Negroes."
PLAYBOY: Along with the other civil rights leaders, you have often proposed a massive program of economic aid, financed by the Federal Government, to improve the lot of the nation's 20,000,000 Negroes. Just one of the projects you've mentioned, however--the HAR-YOU-ACT program to provide jobs for Negro youths--is expected to cost $141,000,000 over the next ten years, and that includes only Harlem. A nationwide program such as you propose would undoubtedly run into the billions.
KING: About 50 billion, actually--which is less than one year of our present defense spending. It is my belief that with the expenditure of this amount, over a ten-year period, a genuine and dramatic transformation could be achieved in the conditions of Negro life in America. I am positive, moreover, that the money spent would be more than amply justified by the benefits that would accrue to the nation through a spectacular decline in school dropouts, family breakups, crime rates, illegitimacy, swollen relief rolls, rioting and other social evils.
PLAYBOY: Do you think it's realistic to hope that the Government would consider an appropriation of such magnitude other than for national defense?
KING: I certainly do. This country has the resources to solve any problem once that problem is accepted as national policy. An example is aid to Appalachia, which has been made a policy of the Federal Government's much-touted war on poverty; one billion was proposed for its relief--without making the slightest dent in the defense budget. Another example is the fact that after World War Two, during the years when it became policy to build and maintain the largest military machine the world has ever known, America also took upon itself, through the Marshall Plan and other measures, the financial relief and rehabilitation of millions of European people. If America can afford to underwrite its allies and ex-enemies, it can certainly afford--and has a much greater obligation, as I see it--to do at least as well by its own no-less-needy countrymen.
PLAYBOY: Do you feel it's fair to request a multibillion-dollar program of preferential treatment for the Negro, or for any other minority group?
KING: I do indeed. Can any fair-minded citizen deny that the Negro has been deprived? Few people reflect that for two centuries the Negro was enslaved, and robbed of any wages--potential accrued wealth which would have been the legacy of his descendants. All of America's wealth today could not adequately compensate its Negroes for his centuries of exploitation and humiliation. It is an economic fact that a program such as I propose would certainly cost far less than any computation of two centuries of unpaid wages plus accumulated interest. In any case, I do not intend that this program of economic aid should apply only to the Negro: it should benefit the disadvantaged of all races.
Within common law, we have ample precedents for special compensatory programs, which are regarded as settlements. American Indians are still being paid for land in a settlement manner. Is not two centuries of labor, which helped to build this country, as real a commodity? Many other easily applicable precedents are readily at hand: our child labor laws, social security, unemployment compensation, man-power retraining programs. And you will remember that America adopted a policy of special treatment for her millions of veterans after the War--a program which cost far more than a policy of preferential treatment to rehabilitate the traditionally disadvantaged Negro would cost today.
The closest analogy is the GI Bill of Rights. Negro rehabilitation in America would require approximately the same breadth of program--which would not place an undue burden on our economy. Just as was the case with the returning soldier, such a bill for the disadvantaged and impoverished could enable them to buy homes without cash, at lower and easier repayment terns. They could negotiate loans from banks to launch businesses. They could receive, as did ex-GIs, special points to place them ahead in competition for civil service jobs. Under certain circumstances of physical disability, medical care and long-term financial grants could be made available. And together with these rights, a favorable social climate could be created to encourage the preferential employment of the disadvantaged, as was the case for so many years with veterans. During those years, it might be noted, there was no appreciable resentment of the preferential treatment being given to the special group. America was only compensating her veterans for their time lost from school or from business.
PLAYBOY: If a nationwide program of preferential employment for Negroes were to be adopted, how would you propose to assuage the resentment of whites who already feel that their jobs are being jeopardized by the influx of Negroes resulting from desegregation?
KING: We must develop a Federal program of public works, retraining and jobs for all--so that none, white or black, will have cause to feel threatened. At the present time, thousands of jobs a week are disappearing in the wake of automation and other production efficiency techniques. Black and white, we will all be harmed unless something grand and imaginative is done. The unemployed, poverty-stricken white man must be made to realize that he is in the very same boat with the Negro. Together, they could exert massive pressure on Government to get jobs for all. Together, they could from a grand alliance. Together, they could merge all people for the good of all.
PLAYBOY: If Negroes are also granted preferential treatment in housing, as you propose, how would you allay the alarm with which many white homeowners, fearing property devaluation, greet the arrival of Negroes in hitherto all-white neighborhoods?
KING: We must expunge from our society the myths and half-truths that engender such groundless fears as these. In the first place, there is no truth to the myth that Negroes depreciate property. The fact is that most Negroes are kept out of residential neighborhoods so long that when one of us is finally sold a home, it's already depreciated. In the second place, we must dispel the negative and harmful atmosphere that has been created by avaricious and unprincipled realtors who engage in "blockbusting." If we had in America really serious efforts to break down discrimination in housing, and at the same time a concerted program of Government aid to improve housing for Negroes, I think many white people would be surprised at how many Negroes would choose to live among themselves, exactly as Poles and Jews and other ethnic groups do.
Martin Luther King, Jr., Playboy, pages 74-76 (January 1965).
August 23, 1996
Letters to the Editor
Los Angeles Times
Times Mirror Square
Los Angeles, CA 90053
Re: Foner, ML King & Racial Preferences
Eric Foner's Aug. 18 letter misrepresents Martin Luther King Jr.'s views about racial preferences. Foner notes William Bennett's invocation of King's statement about looking forward to the day his children would be judged by "the content of their character," not the "color of their skin." Bennett, Foner writes, "conveniently ignores one fact--King was a strong supporter of affirmative action." According to Foner, "King saw affirmative action as one of many measures--some colorblind, some not--needed to counteract the legacy of centuries of discrimination." Thus Foner clearly implies that King supported racial preferences for blacks.
The truth is that King never publicly advocated the establishment of racial preferences for black individuals in employment or school admissions. Instead, apparently aware of the inherent divisiveness of all racial preferences, King advocated the establishment of nonracial economic class-based preferences.
Foner writes that in King's "Why We Can't Wait," (1963), King "argued that given the long history of American racism, blacks fully deserved 'special compensatory measures' in jobs, education and other realms." However, Foner conveniently omits the rest of King's statement--the part that clearly shows King's "special compensatory measures" were nonracial.
King wrote: "I am proposing, therefore, that, just as we granted a GI Bill of Rights to war veterans, America launch a broad-based and gigantic Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged, our veterans of the long siege of denial. ... While Negroes form the vast majority of America's disadvantaged, there are millions of white poor who would also benefit from such a bill." ("Why We Can't Wait," pages 137-138.)
Also, Foner fails to mention the January 1965 Playboy interview in which King again discussed his nonracial Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged:
I do not intend that this program of economic aid should apply only to the Negro: it should benefit the disadvantaged of all races. ... [S]uch a bill for the disadvantaged and impoverished could enable them to buy homes without cash, at lower and easier repayment terms. They could negotiate loans from banks to launch businesses. They could receive, as did ex-GIs, special points to place them ahead in competition for civil service jobs. ... And together with these rights, a favorable social climate could be created to encourage the preferential employment of the disadvantaged, as was the case for so many years with veterans. During those years, it might be noted, there was no appreciable resentment of the preferential treatment being given to the special group. ... We must develop a Federal program of public works, retraining and jobs for all--so that none, white or black, will have cause to feel threatened. ... Black and white, we will all be harmed unless something grand and imaginative is done. The unemployed, poverty-stricken white man must be made to realize that he is in the very same boat with the Negro.
(Playboy, pages 74-76 (January 1965).)
Foner also quotes a sentence from King's "Where Do We Go From Here?" (1967) where King wrote: "A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for him." Yet nowhere in that book did King advocate the establishment of racial preferences for blacks. Rather, King advocated a guaranteed minimum income for all poor people, without regard to race.
Foner's letter identifies him as a professor of history at Columbia University. My preference is that Foner teach his subject, not rewrite it.
Very truly yours,
Allan J. Favish
Attorney at Law