The Meaning Behind Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech

by | Jan 17, 2021

On Martin Luther King Day--and every day--we should focus on the antidote to racism and alternative to racial thinking: individualism.

A version of this article was first published in 2002. CM is republishing it because its message still remains relevant today.

What should we remember on Martin Luther King Day? In his “I Have a Dream” speech Dr. King said: “I have a dream that my four 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 statement means that in judging other men, skin color should be ignored–that it should not be a factor in evaluating their competence or moral stature. It follows that skin color should not be a factor in taking actions toward other people, e.g., hiring and admitting to universities.

What has happened in the years following King’s murder is the opposite of the “I Have a Dream” quote above. Colorblindness now has been replaced with color preference in the form of affirmative action.

No amount of rationalizing can disguise the fact that affirmative action involves implicit or explicit racial quotas, i.e., racism. Consider the realm of work as a case in point. Taking jobs away from one group in order to compensate a second group to correct injustices caused by a third group who mistreated a fourth group at an earlier point in history (e.g., 1860) is absurd on the face of it and does not promote justice; rather, it does the opposite. It promotes racism.

You cannot cure racism with more racism. Singling out one group for special favors (through affirmative action) ignores the fact that people are individuals–not interchangeable ciphers in an amorphous collective.

Consider a more concrete, though fictional, example. Suppose that since its creation in 1936, the XYZ Corporation refused to hire redheaded men due to a quirky bias on the part of its founder. The founder now dies, and an enlightened board of directors decides that something “positive” needs to be done to compensate for past injustices and announces that, henceforth, redheads will be hired on a preferential basis. Observe that: (1) this does not help the real victims–the previously excluded redheads; (2) the newly favored redheads have not been victims of discrimination in hiring, yet unfairly benefit from it; and (3) the non-redheads who are now excluded from jobs due to the redhead preference did not cause the previous discrimination and are now unfairly made victims of it.

The proper solution, of course, is simply to stop discriminating based on irrelevant factors. Although redheaded bias is not a social problem, the principle remains the same when you replace hair color with skin color.

The traditional solution to the problem of racism is colorblindness, or, from the other side of that coin, individual awareness. For example, in the job sphere there are only three essential things an employer needs to know about an individual applicant: (l) Does the person have the relevant ability and knowledge (or the capacity to learn readily)? (2) Is the person willing to exert the needed effort? and (3) Does the person have good character, e.g., honesty, integrity?

The rational alternative to racial diversity, focusing on the collective, is to focus on the individual and to treat each individual according to his own merits. This principle should apply in every sphere of life–from business, to education, to law enforcement, to politics.

Americans have always abhorred the concept of royalty, that is, granting status and privilege (and, conversely, inferiority and debasement) based on one’s hereditary caste, because it contradicts the principle that what counts are the self-made characteristics possessed by each individual. Americans should abhor racism, in any form, for the same reason. On Martin Luther King Day–and every day–we should focus on the proper antidote to racism and the proper alternative to racial thinking: individualism. We need to teach our children and all our citizens to look beyond the superficialities of skin color and to judge people on what really matters, namely, “the content of their character.”

Copyright 2002 Ayn Rand Institute. All rights reserved. That the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) has granted permission to Capitalism Magazine to republish this article, does not mean ARI necessarily endorses or agrees with the other content on this website.

Edwin A. Locke is Dean's Professor of Leadership and Motivation Emeritus at the R.H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland. He is a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science (APS), the American Psychological Association, the Society for Industrial & Organizational Behavior, and the Academy of Management. He is the recipient of the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award (Society for I/O Psychology), the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Management (OB Division), the J. M. Cattell Award (APS) and the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the Academy of Management. He, with Gary Latham, has spent over 50 years developing Goal Setting Theory, ranked No. 1 in importance among 73 management theories. He has published over 320 chapters, articles, reviews and notes, and has authored or edited 13 books including (w. Kenner) The Selfish Path to Romance, (w. Latham) New Directions in Goal Setting and Task Performance, and The Prime Movers: Traits of the Great Wealth Creators. He is internationally known for his research on motivation, job satisfaction, leadership, and other topics. His website is: EdwinLocke.com

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

9 Comments

  1. YA no, this is my favorite time of year. After 364 days of being outraged by all the bs Republicans, for one bright and shining day every January they show there true colors, radical Marxism.

    The “great” Dr. King was against everything you pretend to believe in. It is the absolute height of your shamlessness that you think you can claim this race hustler as your own.

    People DO NOT admire this oaf because of some supposed egalitarianism, the admire him for all the hand out he promised, his victomhood he sold, and all the glamourization of the poor he did.

    He was NOT a great man, nor a FLAWED man, He was a supremely EVIL man with NO redeeming qualities.
    E
    I’ve said it once and Ill say it again, Liberal-tarians are THE MOST morally corrupted people. on Earth.

  2. Just for the sake of accuracy, Dr. Locke is not a Libertarian. And his essay doesn’t evaluate King, but what King said about being color blind–judging a man by his character rather than his race.

    King himself was a Marxist.

    As for egalitarianism (coined by Continental rationalists, e.g., Rousseau, etc.), that’s an idea that leads to this sort of despotic society:

    “The best ordered state will be one in which the largest number of persons … most nearly resembles a single person. The first and highest form of the State … is a condition in which the private and the individual is altogether banished from life, and things which are by nature private, such as eyes and ears and hands, have become common, and in some way see and hear and act in common, and all men express praise and blame and feel joy and sorrow on the same occasion, and whatever laws there are unite the city to the utmost …” (Plato’s _Republic_ & _Laws_ c. 370 BCE)

  3. MLK made one offhand statement about “not judging a man by the color of his skin” in one speach in in a entire lifetime of race baiting. If its not out of decietfullness on your part how could you not acknowledge the affirmitive action, quotas and reperations he DEMANDED? And do you really think Jessie Jackson, Al Sharpton or Obama would deny racial equallity?

  4. Oh, I acknowledge all of that and more. MLK was a dyed in the wool Marxist & egalitarian. My point was that Dr. Locke was focusing on the statement, which asserts an objectivity when dealing with others of any race, not whether King actually believed it. Locke is trying to show, using that statement, that Affirmative action, etc., are in fact, racist.

    If you wish to think of it this way: He’s hanging King by his own petard.

  5. Well ok, but I wish people would simple grow a pair and start OVERTLYcalling him out instead of beating around the bush.

  6. I agree. But Dr. Locke’s essay wasn’t intended to critique MLK. Rather, it was intended to critique racism.

    The title itself says it all: “What We Should Remember… ”

    MLK’s line–and it’s implications–is what we should remember, leading us to conclude–thanks to Dr. Locke–that racism is collectivist at its root and the only antidote is individualism. What will come later–if the reader pursues a study of the life of MLK–is the realization that King himself was a collectivist.

    More, if you’re interested, here:

    http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/racism.html

    As for criticisms of MLK, two come quickly to mind (though the latter seeks to rationalize King’s flaws):

    “King’s Plagiarism: Imitation, Insecurity and Transformation,” The Journal of American History, June 1991, p. 87) David J. Garrow (an admirer of King)

    I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. (Free Press, 2000). — Michael Eric Dyson (professor, DePaul University; Columbia University – African American Studies)

  7. What We Should Remember on Martin Luther King Day….

    that the whole black experiment has been a colossal failure….

    after all these years and all the freebies and all the free passes….

    blacks have still not progressed enough to have freedom and responsibility……..

  8. Dr. Locke, I appreciate your effort. Your complex-abstract evaluation of Dr. King’s statement is good. It may be the best thing he ever said. However, considering all his other beliefs he could not have meant it the way it sounded. I think you are right and it is consistent with what the ARI has always done. That is to extract the best from a philosopher’s work. Even if there was very little. I enjoyed your evaluation and I want the world to raise the bar so we can start dialog on very much tougher topics.

  9. “Content of character” sounds hollow from a man whom Jackie Kennedy, husband of the Jesus Christ of the leftwing media, called a “pig”!

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