Few civil rights documents have been cited more often by more people with differing points of view than the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered Aug. 28, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

Defenders of individual rights—those who believe in colorblind government and personal merit—frequently cite the line, “I have a dream that my four little 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.”

Defenders of race preferences cite other parts of the speech, reflecting a different side of Dr. King.

“In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check,” he said. “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.

“ . . . It is obvious today,” King said, “that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ ”

Dr. King emphasized “the fierce urgency of Now” and rejected “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” Clearly, some interpreters argue, King would support “benign” discrimination, such as race preferences, to right past wrongs.

Who is correct?

Did Dr. King seek an America where each individual would be judged on his or her own merit, or was he ostensibly a political figure, seeking government intervention to achieve some notion of racial “justice”?

Because he was assassinated in 1968, it’s impossible to know what King’s positions on race and liberty might be today. Based on his philosophy at the time, however, there is every reason to believe that King, like his associate Jesse Jackson, would have embraced massive government intervention, including preferences, for blacks.

The “Dream” speech was short on specifics, but in a book published the following year, Why We Can’t Wait, King advocated “compensatory or preferential treatment” for past discrimination against blacks. He also proposed a “Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged” that would offer government benefits to minorities and “the forgotten white poor.”

These policy demands, to be fair, were a means and not an end. His dream was a world that looked beyond the group distinction of race and into “the content of (individual) character.” Thus, in 1968, King would oppose a “diversity liberalism” that makes a fetish of skin color.

Today’s liberals cannot have it both ways, embracing the means but not the dream. If diversity is the end, meaning certain percentages of certain types of individuals—whites, blacks, Latinos, Asians—carefully dispersed throughout society, there is no limit to racial and ethnic engineering. Skin color and ethnicity become commodities traded in the marketplace of “diversity.”

Martin Luther King Jr. was a social democrat who favored a large government role in society. Yet King the speechmaker understood that the large national audience he addressed opposed his politics but was open to a reversal of Jim Crow.

In reaching that audience, Dr. King carefully chose words that resonated with Americans across the political spectrum, words that rang true to the “American dream” as embodied in the Declaration of Independence.

On that narrow score, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Dream” speech offered something for everyone: defenders of individual rights and the racially aggrieved alike. That is why his words entered the American canon of speech and why Americans today continue to celebrate them.