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After year of legal challenges, affirmative action ban becomes law

August 28, 1997

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ After nearly a year of legal challenges, California’s affirmative action ban became law Thursday _ the 34th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s ``I Have a Dream″ speech.

Thousands of the law’s opponents streamed across the Golden Gate Bridge in protest of California becoming the first state in the nation to eliminate race and gender considerations in everything from hiring to education.

``This is history,″ said 60-year-old demonstrator Jestine Singleton, who drove overnight with a church group from Riverside in Southern California. ``We’ve still got the dream. It’s still coming.″

California voters passed the measure, Proposition 209, last November by a 54 percent margin, but the ban has been tied up in the courts since. The American Civil Liberties Union and other opponents tried to have it struck down, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused Tuesday to block implementation while it is appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

King’s famous speech in Washington in 1963 was on the marchers’ minds as they trooped across the bridge, four and five abreast on a pedestrian sidewalk, chanting and singing ``We Shall Overcome.″ The protest, followed by a rally, was peaceful and traffic was not disrupted.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who organized the march, urged Prop 209 opponents to continue fighting.

``In this country there are those who are dreamers and those who are dream-busters. The dreamers need to outlast the dream-busters. We must pursue the dream of an inclusive society,″ Jackson said.

Schoolchildren, college students and the elderly of all races walked side-by-side, many wearing ``Save the dream″ buttons as drivers honked and waved. Drum and bugle corps music added to the din.

``I don’t think we’ve undone the negative effects of slavery,″ said Jean Mont-Eton, 68, of San Francisco. ``I still think we need affirmative action.″

San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, who is black, likened the ban to Jim Crow laws decades ago.

``This same kind of march was held years ago, when Southern bigots were doing the same thing,″ he said.

Meanwhile, it wasn’t clear whether implementation of the law would have any immediate impact.

In San Francisco, City Attorney Louise Renne said a local affirmative action program would stand despite Proposition 209.

``In San Francisco, at least, there will be no precipitous action to undo the hard work we have already undertaken to remedy past discrimination,″ Renne said.

State officials and proposition supporters were quick to warn that failing to abide by the law would not be tolerated.

In Los Angeles County’s affirmative action office, Dennis Tafoya said county officials ``won’t be changing anything immediately. I think we want to be very sure about what we do here.″

At the state level, the measure affects contract bidding rules that give preference to firms subcontracting with minorities.

However, because state laws mandating the rules remain in effect until struck down by the courts or repealed by the Legislature, the rules remain technically in place.

And Proposition 209 has no legal effect in the private sector, so businesses can continue to recruit and train minorities and women.

In education, the big change came not from Proposition 209 but from a similar measure approved by University of California regents in 1995. It affected the fall’s incoming graduate students and will apply to new undergraduate admissions starting next year.

Ward Connerly, the black regent who led the fight for the UC measure, said in Sacramento that Jackson had changed his tune from the 1960s, when he argued against judging people by race.

``He said it was morally wrong to judge people on the basis of skin color. Today he marches because he wants to judge people on the basis of skin color,″ Connerly said.

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