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.”
The meaning of King’s monumental quote is more complex today than in 1963 because “the unconscious signals have changed,” says the historian Taylor Branch, author of the acclaimed trilogy “America in the King Years.”
Fifty years ago, bigotry was widely accepted. Today, Branch says, even though prejudice is widely denounced, many people unconsciously pre-judge others.
“Unfortunately race in American history has been one area in which Americans kid themselves and pretend to be fair-minded when they really are not,” says Branch, whose new book is “The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement.”