Attorney General Edwin Meese III said yesterday that he was "trying to carry out the original intent of the civil rights movement" in proposing to eliminate minority hiring goals for government contractors.
Speaking at a news conference on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, Meese invoked the slain civil rights leader's name in defending his proposal on affirmative action. That proposal, which has split President Reagan's Cabinet, would change a 1965 executive order and bar the Labor Department from using goals and timetables in pushing federal contractors to hire more minorities and women.
"My views are the same as the president's and the same as those who originated the executive order some 20 years ago or more -- and that is that there should be no discrimination," Meese said. "No discrimination means that various devices which have grown up over the years -- including the use of quotas to discriminate or other subterfuges for quotas -- should not occur."
Meese added that "one of the things Dr. King said in his famous 'I have a dream' speech was that he foresaw a colorblind society, and this is what we're very much dedicated to." He said the Justice Department's approach to civil rights enforcement is "very consistent with what Dr. King had in mind."
Ralph G. Neas of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights responded that "the executive order has absolutely nothing to do with quotas. Indeed, it forbids their use.
"It is especially scandalous on Martin Luther King's birthday to associate him with those who are attempting to gut the executive order," Neas said. "There is no question that if Martin were alive today, he would be a leader of the extraordinary bipartisan consensus that is fighting to save the executive order."
The White House yesterday postponed a meeting on the issue between Meese and Labor Secretary William E. Brock that had been scheduled for today, according to administration sources. Meese said he hopes to meet soon with Brock, who has blocked the Justice Department proposals.
Administration sources suggested that the meeting called by White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan was put off to avoid detracting from the president's role this week in celebrations honoring King.
Meese's stance parallels recent comments by William Bradford Reynolds, assistant attorney general for civil rights, who said he had been "in lockstep" with King and other 1960s civil rights leaders but that today's activists have "twisted" those policies into quotas.
Meese said the Civil Rights Division has collected "a litany" of Labor Department cases "in which goals and timetables were actually used as a subterfuge for quotas." Justice officials said this analysis was not available yesterday. Brock has maintained that hiring goals, involved in 1,100 cases last year, differ from quotas and have helped spur minority employment.
Although 69 senators and 180 House members have signed letters opposing a new executive order, Meese denied "that the majority of Congress is against us on this." He said his plan would increase minority employment by encouraging recruitment.
"If you talk with the black people themselves, there's no indication I have that any of them are in favor of discrimination," Meese said