Thirty-nine years ago this month, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,
stood before a crowd of 250,000 people at the 1963 March on Washington to
deliver his famous "I have a dream" speech. King's powerful words inspired
all Americans and came to symbolize the struggle for equal rights for
blacks. This weekend, another march on Washington will take place, this one
sadly symbolizing the moral bankruptcy that has infected much of the civil
rights movement in recent years. Under the banner "They Owe Us," thousands
will rally in the nation's capital to demand reparations for slavery, a
dubious cause that threatens to divide, not unite, Americans.
This latest march is the brainchild of Conrad Worrill, national
chairman of the National Black United Front, a Chicago-based, '60s-style
radical group that has little interest in promoting racial healing. Where
King invoked the image that one day "the sons of former slaves and the sons
of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of
brotherhood," Worrill prefers to speak of the "genocide" of white Americans
against blacks and to demand, "We're due reparations."
King himself was well acquainted with the sentiments that
Worrill and his friends in the reparations movement espouse, even speaking
about the issue in his famous speech. "Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst
for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred," he warned.
At the time King spoke those words, black radicals, including Worrill's
close friend and Black Panther Party leader Stokely Carmichael, were
preaching Black Power and racial separatism. But King cautioned that racial
animosity was a dead end and that black militancy "must not lead us to
distrust of all white people." King noted that the fates of blacks and
whites were inextricably linked. "We cannot walk alone," he said.
The reparations movement stands no chance of succeeding in the
courts or in Congress. With support from a bevy of black luminaries, from
private attorney Johnnie Cochran to Harvard professor Charles Ogletree to
Trans Africa chairman Randall Robinson, the reparations movement is more
about grabbing headlines than enacting public policy. The blame game won't
put money in the pockets of the descendants of slaves, but it is likely to
make both blacks and whites resentful.
Most white Americans feel no personal culpability for slavery --
nor should they. The descendants of slave owners make up a tiny fraction of
the current white population, and even they cannot be held responsible for
the sins of their fathers. And many Americans -- whites, Asians and
Hispanics -- are descendants of immigrants who came to the United States
long after slavery ended. So what possible good does it do for black leaders
to blame whites for deeds committed long ago?
Dr. King did believe that America owed a debt to blacks. "When
the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the
Constitution and the Declaration of Independence," he said on that hot
August day in 1963, "they were signing a promissory note to which every
American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be
guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of
happiness. It is obvious today," he said, "that America has defaulted on
this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned."
King called upon America to issue a check to black Americans, "a
check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security
of justice." But he wasn't talking about a bank draft.
When King spoke these words, Congress had yet to pass the great
Civil Rights Act of 1964, which guaranteed nondiscrimination in employment,
public accommodations, education and federally funded programs. Nor had
Congress enacted the 1965 Voting Rights Act or the 1968 Fair Housing Act.
These laws would not have been passed were it not for the leadership of men
like Dr. King, who hoped that "all of God's children, black men and white
men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join
hands." How sad it is that four decades later some who claim to be King's
heirs instead want to pit one group against the other.