How clashing interpretations of Martin Luther King’s legacy fuels the fight over DEI and affirmative action

Jan 15, 2024, 1:00 AM | Updated: 8:20 pm

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr....

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivering a speech in Montgomery, Alabama. (Stephen F. Somerstein/Getty Images)

(Stephen F. Somerstein/Getty Images)

(CNN) — More than 60 years have passed since Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington and yet his words still resonate today.


“I think it’s very difficult to find a human being, especially an American, who can hear that speech and not be moved,” said Lerone Martin, Director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.

King’s dream  that Black children “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” – is powerful, Martin said, because he was describing “what America could be, what America should be.”

But decades later, warring interpretations of one of King’s most famous quotes have fueled a culture war over the merits of affirmative action and diversity and inclusion efforts.

As each side uses Dr. King’s words to justify their stance, historians say we’re at risk of erasing the fullness of his legacy and ignoring the long history of discriminatory practices that have fueled inequality in our society today.

As a child, legal activist Edward Blum said he grew up discussing civil rights at the dinner table. Decades later, his fight for equality would take him all the way to the Supreme Court where he was the legal strategist behind Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, the case that dismantled affirmative action in college admissions.

Blum told CNN he was inspired by King’s speech from the March on Washington – specifically the idea that people shouldn’t be judged “by the color of their skin” – to launch a lifelong crusade against affirmative action practices.

He said he’s dedicated his career to trying to “re-establish this great legal covenant of color-blindness.”

“Americans of all races wholly understand that Dr. King’s most enduring line from his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech means that an individual’s skin color should not be used to help, or harm, them in their life’s endeavors,” Blum told CNN.

 “Dr. King’s [“I Have a Dream”] quote means that affirmative action is polarizing, unfair and illegal,” he added.

But many historians – and at times some of King’s own children – have disagreed with the notion that Dr. King would have disavowed affirmative action.

Bernice, King’s youngest daughter, has at times been a vocal critic on social media of what she has described as the repeated misuse of her father’s quotes, especially ones from his “I Have a Dream” speech.

“People using ‘not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character’ to deter discussion of, teaching about, and protest against racism are not students of the comprehensive MLK,” King posted last August on X, formerly known as Twitter.

“My father’s dream and work included eradicating racism, not ignoring it.”

Martin said he feels reducing Dr. King’s legacy to a single quote in a speech diminishes the gains the civil rights leader fought for.

He encourages critics of race-based affirmative action and diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts to look at the breadth of King’s work, including his final book published in 1967, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community.”

In the book, King wrote, “a society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for the Negro.”

Martin said this context underscores how King felt about affirmative action, which became law through an executive order in 1965.

Instead, the “I Have a Dream” quote, Martin said, has been repeatedly repurposed “as a quote to call for the dismantling of various mechanisms that were intended to bring about a more equitable society.”

“I’ve seen [King’s words] be misunderstood as a call for color-blindness,” he said. “Colorblindness asks us to explain systemic racial inequality by using ‘raceless’ explanations. It asks us to explain or solve a phenomenon but bars us from addressing the root cause of the phenomenon.”  

Shayla Nunnally, professor of political science and Africana studies at the University of Tennessee, agreed, and believes King would not have supported the decision to dismantle affirmative action.

“I say that because I think accounting for ways that we can make society more inclusive would have been a part of that vision for Dr. King,” she said.

Nunnally said the fight over affirmative action ultimately comes down to whether you believe the “dream” King spoke of that day has already been achieved.

“We would have hoped that this would have been something that we saw fully change by the end of the Civil Rights Movement, but that’s not the case,” she said.

Martin said as long as race remains a “strong determinant of where one lives, goes to school, income, encounters with police,” he feels American society still has a long way to go before achieving Dr. King’s dream.

While they disagree on whether King would have supported affirmative action and DEI to bring about a more inclusive society, both Blum and Martin said America must continue King’s work to dismantle the legacy of racism.

“Most Americans don’t think how someone looks, tells them much about who they are as an individual,” Blum said. “And that is a deeply embedded American belief.”

Martin said he sees our country’s progress toward King’s vision as an ongoing journey.

“If you take [King] at his fullness, you’ll realize that we have a long way to go before we fully arrive at the society which we dreamed about and spoke about and encouraged us to become,” he said.

Related: Navigating diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives on college campuses


We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team here.

Race, Religion + Social Justice

Liver and kidney transplant patient Luis Campos says he's grateful he had a Spanish-speaking team....

Eric Cabrera

Murray kidney clinic helping the Latino community

MURRAY, Utah — Intermountain Health has taken steps to address healthcare in Latino communities by opening Utah’s first fully Spanish-speaking Kidney Transplant Clinic. The Intermountain Clinica Hispana de Riñon (Hispanic Kidney Clinic), in Murray, aims to provide a space for members of the Latino community navigating the complex kidney transplant process. The clinic has bilingual professionals, […]

1 day ago

The Utah Capitol is shown on March 3, 2023, in Salt Lake City. Utah's SB 150, similar to the Relig...

Derrick Jones

“Utah’s RFRA”, passes the House and heads to the Governor

Utah's SB 150, similar to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), passed the House and awaits the Governor's signature.

5 days ago

a meetinghouse shown, select meeting houses will be used as community centers...

Britt Johnson

Select meetinghouses will serve as community resource centers

The community resource centers are part of the MyHometown Utah initiative, which seeks to support and strengthen local communities.

8 days ago

Celeste Maloy, then-candidate for Utah's 2nd Congressional District, at a campaign event in 2023. N...

Aimee Cobabe

Report: Utah elected more women in 2023 but still lags U.S. average

Annual research from the Utah Women and Leadership Project shows Utahns elected more women to represent them.

9 days ago

People react as supporters of the bill which legalizes same-sex civil marriage gather in front of t...


Greece becomes first Orthodox Christian country to legalize same-sex civil marriage

The new law recognizes parental rights for same-sex couples, but will not allow gay men to acquire biological children through surrogate mothers in Greece.

13 days ago

Construction team members gather Tuesday, February 13, 2024, to sign some of the final reinforcing ...

Eliza Pace

Spires placed on the Salt Lake Temple in latest step in renovation

Construction workers celebrated as spires were replaced on the iconic Salt Lake Temple Tuesday afternoon.

14 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Mother and cute toddler child in a little fancy wooden cottage, reading a book, drinking tea and en...

Visit Bear Lake

How to find the best winter lodging in Bear Lake, Utah

Winter lodging in Bear Lake can be more limited than in the summer, but with some careful planning you can easily book your next winter trip.

Happy family in winter clothing at the ski resort, winter time, watching at mountains in front of t...

Visit Bear Lake

Ski more for less: Affordable ski resorts near Bear Lake, Utah

Plan your perfect ski getaway in Bear Lake this winter, with pristine slopes, affordable tickets, and breathtaking scenery.

front of the Butch Cassidy museum with a man in a cowboy hat standing in the doorway...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

Looking Back: The History of Bear Lake

The history of Bear Lake is full of fascinating stories. At over 250,000 years old, the lake has seen generations of people visit its shores.

silhouette of a family looking over a lake with a bird in the top corner flying...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

8 Fun Activities To Do in Bear Lake Without Getting in the Water

Bear Lake offers plenty of activities for the whole family to enjoy without having to get in the water. Catch 8 of our favorite activities.

Wellsville Mountains in the spring with a pond in the foreground...

Wasatch Property Management

Advantages of Renting Over Owning a Home

Renting allows you to enjoy luxury amenities and low maintenance without the long-term commitment and responsibilities of owning a home.

Clouds over a red rock vista in Hurricane, Utah...

Wasatch Property Management

Why Southern Utah is a Retirement Paradise

Retirement in southern Utah offers plenty of cultural and recreational opportunities. Find out all that this region has to offer.

How clashing interpretations of Martin Luther King’s legacy fuels the fight over DEI and affirmative action