Co-opting King’s Dream, Because They Lack One of Their Own
Here is the ultimate disrespect and insensitivity: standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the same day that Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his “I Have a Dream” speech 47 years ago, pretending that a political movement that hates and mistrusts government, that thinks of civil rights as “special rights,” that attacks the first black President of the United States in explicitly and implicitly racist terms, that holds militarism and religious zealotry in the highest respect and social justice in the deepest contempt, is the present-day standard bearer of the African-American civil rights movement.
It takes an astounding degree of, what? self-regard? presumptuousness? total ignorance of historical reality? to assert, as Beck did a few months ago in a promotion for today’s rally (Leonard Pitts, Jr., via Steve Benen):
`This is a moment … that I think we reclaim the civil rights movement. It has been so distorted and so turned upside down. . . . We are on the right side of history. We are on the side of individual freedoms and liberties and damn it, we will reclaim the civil rights moment. We will take that movement, because we were the people that did it in the first place!”
Pitts focuses on that “we”:
… You’ll notice he didn’t define the “we” he had in mind, but it seems reasonable to suppose Beck was speaking of people like himself: affluent middle-aged conservatives possessed of the ability to see socialism and communism in places where it somehow escapes the notice of others.
If you agree that assumption is reasonable, then you must also agree Beck’s contention that his “we” were the architects of the civil rights movement is worse than nonsensical, worse than mendacious, worse than shameless. It is obscene. It is theft of legacy. It is robbery of martyr’s graves.
We’re in an odd moment. Having opposed the freedom movement of the 20th century, some social conservatives seek, now that that movement stands vindicated and venerated, to arrogate unto themselves its language and heroes, to remake it in their image.
But even by those standards, Glenn Beck’s effrontery is monumental. Even by those standards, he goes too far. Beck was part of the “we” who founded the civil rights movement!? No. Here’s who “we” is.
“We” is Emmett Till, tied to a cotton gin fan in the murky waters of the Tallahatchie River. “We” is Rosa Parks telling the bus driver no. “We” is Diane Nash on a sleepless night waiting for missing Freedom Riders to check in. “We” is Charles Sherrod, husband of Shirley, gingerly testing desegregation compliance in an Albany, Ga., bus station. “We” is a sharecropper making his X on a form held by a white college student from the North. “We” is celebrities like Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando and Pernell Roberts of Bonanza, lending their names, their wealth and their labor to the cause of freedom.
“We” is Medgar Evers, Michael Schwerner, Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, Viola Liuzzo, Cynthia Wesley, Andrew Goodman, Denise McNair, James Chaney, Addie Mae Collins and Carole Robertson, shot, beaten and blown to death for that cause.
The we to which Glenn Beck belongs is the we that said no, the we that cried “socialism!” “communism!” “tyranny!” whenever black people and their allies cried freedom.
Bob Herbert calls Beck “an ignorant, divisive, pathetic figure … [standing] in the shadows of giants.”
Beck is a provocateur who likes to play with matches in the tinderbox of racial and ethnic confrontation. He seems oblivious to the real danger of his execrable behavior. He famously described President Obama as a man “who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.”
He is an integral part of the vicious effort by the Tea Party and other elements of the right wing to portray Mr. Obama as somehow alien, a strange figure who is separate and apart from — outside of — ordinary American life. As the watchdog group Media Matters for America has noted, Beck said of the president, “He chose to use the name, Barack, for a reason, to identify not with America — you don’t take the name Barack to identify with America. You take the name Barack to identify, with what? Your heritage? The heritage, maybe, of your father in Kenya, who is a radical?”
Facts and reality mean nothing to Beck. And there is no road too low for him to slither upon. The Southern Poverty Law Center tells us that in a twist on the civil rights movement, Beck said on the air that he “wouldn’t be surprised if in our lifetime dogs and fire hoses are released or opened on us. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of us get a billy club to the head. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of us go to jail — just like Martin Luther King did — on trumped-up charges. Tough times are coming.”
He makes you want to take a shower.
For sheer cynicism, though, Sarah Palin will always take high honors. If any single social movement and any single leader of such a movement transformed America, it certainly was the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King, Jr. Who would claim that the civil rights movement and the people who led that movement and participated in it did not fundamentally transform America? Yet, here is the Wizard of Wasilla, simpering about how she “felt the ‘spirit’ ” of Dr. King and chirping about how “proud” she hoped he would be of the rally, and in the next breath warning, “We must not fundamentally transform America as some would want. … We must restore America and restore her honor.” To what prior conditions does Palin think America should be restored?
Meanwhile, at the real “I Have a Dream” anniversary rally, led by Al Sharpton and attended by more than one black person as well as actual civil rights activists and leaders of the actual civil rights movement who were actually in attendance at the original “I Have a Dream” rally 47 years ago, the executive director of the National Council of Negro Women told the crowd, “Don’t let anyone tell you that they have the right to take their country back. It’s our country too. We will reclaim the dream. It was ours from the beginning.”