William Bradford Reynolds, I must admit, aroused my curiosity the other day when he said that his present-day views and the 1960s views of the civil rights leadership were "pretty much in lockstep."
It is the civil rights leadership, not the assistant attorney general for civil rights, that has changed in recent years, he said. Does he have a point?
The answer (mystery lovers will forgive the indiscretion) is: no. I've been weighing Reynolds' statements in the context of what the preeminent civil rights leader of the '60s had to say, and the real mystery is how Reynolds can believe they were ever in "lockstep."
Reynolds says, for instance, that the push for fair rules, which he supported, has been distorted into something else. "The whole idea of equal opportunity got changed in the minds of some to a concept of equal results, and individual rights were translated into group entitlements."
But listen to Martin Luther King Jr. (in "Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?"):
"Negroes have proceeded from a premise that equality means what it says . . . but most whites in America in 1967, including many persons of goodwill, proceed from a premise that equality is a loose expression for improvement. White America is not even psychologically organized to close the gap -- essentially it seeks only to make it less painful and less obvious but in most respects to retain it. Most of the abrasions between Negroes and white liberals arise from this fact."
Reynolds believes the emphasis on affirmative action and other relief for groups victimized by racism is new; that the movement's leaders once held his view that enacting and enforcing fair laws was enough.
But King saw laws as vital, though not sufficient: "like freeing a man who has been unjustly imprisoned for years and, on discovering his innocence, sending him out with no bus fare to get home, no suit to cover his body, no financial compensation to . . . help him get a footing in society: sending him out with only the assertion: 'Now you are free.'
The government's chief civil rights enforcer says he wants racial equality but that he disapproves race-specific means toward that end as just another form of racism. King would not have been surprised.
"Ever since the birth of our nation," he wrote, "white America has had a schizophrenic personality on the question of race. She has been torn between selves -- a self in which she proudly professed the great principles of democracy and a self in which she sadly practiced the antithesis of democracy. . . . There never has been a solid, unified and determined thrust to make justice a reality for Afro-Americans."
Brad Reynolds looks at an executive order, signed 20 years go by Lyndon Johnson and broadly credited with improving employment opportunities for minorities and women, and sees only "quotas" and other bugbears. He does not oppose increased opportunity for minorities, he insists, but his role as civil rights enforcer requires him to protect the rights of white men too.
Said King: "It seems to be a fact of life that human beings cannot continue to do wrong without eventually reaching out for some rationalization to clothe their acts in the garments of righteousness."