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January 21, 2013

King ‘content of character’ quote still inspiring debate

NORMAN — “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

This sentence spoken by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has been quoted countless times as expressing one of America’s bedrock values, its language almost sounding like a constitutional amendment on equality.

Yet today, 50 years after King shared this vision during his most famous speech, there is considerable disagreement over what it means.

The quote is used to support opposing views on politics, affirmative action and programs intended to help the disadvantaged. Just as the words of the nation’s founders are parsed for modern meanings on guns and abortion, so are King’s words used in debates over the proper place of race in America.

As we mark the King holiday, what might he ask of us in a time when both the president and a disproportionate number of people in poverty are black? Would King have wanted us to completely ignore race in a “color-blind” society? To consider race as one of many factors about a person? And how do we discern character?

For at least two of King’s children, the future envisioned by the father has yet to arrive.

“I don’t think we can ignore race,” says Martin Luther King III.

“What my father is asking is to create the climate where every American can realize his or her dreams,” he says. “Now what does that mean when you have 50 million people living in poverty?”

Bernice King doubts her father would seek to ignore differences.

“When he talked about the beloved community, he talked about everyone bringing their gifts, their talents, their cultural experiences,” she says. “We live in a society where we may have differences, of course, but we learn to celebrate these differences.”

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