With All Deliberate Speed: The Fight for Legal Equality
During a recent debate on the 1996 presidential election, a well-intentioned college student proclaimed that affirmative action had been established in order to retaliate against white society for slavery. The student added the oft-accepted assertion that affirmative action represented reverse racism and contradicted Martin Luther King's dream of a color-blind society. When asked to substantiate this claim, the student could not. That he was unable to do so, however, did not disturb the audience; rather, it reflected the general lack of understanding of the origins of affirmative action in particular, and the history of the fight for legal equality more generally. Yet, without knowledge about the long-term fight for legal equality and the specific context in which affirmative action programs developed, is it possible to determine whether or not affirmative action represents a betrayal of the civil rights movement and the aims of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? And is it possible to judge the purpose and merits of affirmative action without an understanding of the history of the struggle for legal equality that preceded its development? Based on the assumption that it is not possible to do so, this chapter will survey the fight for legal equality from colonial times to the present, with an emphasis on the modern era.
While the legal status of the first Africans who arrived in British America remained imprecise, by the mid-seventeenth century a variety of laws had