On Saturday afternoon, in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, an opportunist presumed to fill the shoes of an icon.
It’s tempting to characterize Glenn Beck’s hubristic attempt to channel Martin Luther King Jr. as sad or disgraceful. But let’s lighten the mood a bit and simply point out that, on the laugh meter, no Jennifer Aniston summer comedy could possibly compete with the Fox host’s stated intention to “reclaim the civil rights movement.”
Neither this guy, nor his ahistorical acolytes, has a clue what the ’60s civil rights movement was all about. There is no way that Beck can lay claim to a movement that stood for everything he now opposes. The stuff that Beck spouts today would have prompted King to consider him an enemy.
Beck appeared yesterday on Fox News Sunday, still stoked by the gig that he scheduled on the 47th anniversary of King’s “I have a dream” speech. Unfortunately for Beck, however, Sunday host Chris Wallace hit him with the key question: “Do you have any credibility talking about reclaiming the civil rights movement?”
Of course not. Beck invoking King is like Paris Hilton laying claim to the humanitarian legacy of Mother Teresa.
Beck said yesterday that he wants to reclaim the civil rights movement “from politics.” But the movement as embodied by King was inextricably political. King’s career was devoted to the proposition that the federal government in Washington had a moral and fiduciary responsibility to helping minorities and the poor. He demanded that the president and Congress “help the poor get jobs, health care, and decent homes.” He called for “a radical redistribution of economic power.” He insisted that Washington “guarantee a job to all people who want to work and are able to work,” and “guarantee an income for all who are not able to work.”
If anyone today tried to advocate for King’s agenda, Beck would be the first to scream about the evils of “socialism” – which he has already characterized as “raping the pocketbooks of the rich to give to the poor.” That view is echoed by the tea-partiers who trail in his wake. At the rally on Saturday, for instance, a Floridian named Becky Benson told the press that Jesus would never have supported a redistribution of wealth, and a Kentuckian named Ron Sears told the press that the job of the federal government “is only to offer us protection from our enemies.”
Just as importantly, the civil rights movement’s chief aim was to compel passage of a landmark federal bill outlawing segregation. Beck’s conservative forebears (Goldwater Republicans, and the southern “state’s rights” Democrats who would soon join the GOP) heatedly opposed this bill; they insisted that it wasn’t the federal government’s job to police behavior in hotels, restaurants, and other public accommodations. They routinely labeled King a “communist” for his advocacy. King, in his subsequent autobiography, retaliated by arguing that the conservative philosophy “gave aid and comfort to the racist.”
In fact, the 1963 Lincoln Memorial rally was staged for the express purpose of persuading the White House and Congress to enact the landmark civil rights law and thereby enhance the federal government’s power. When several dozen senators showed up that day to lend their support, they were serenaded by 100,000 people chanting, “Pass the bill! Pass the bill!”
This was empirical reality back in the day. It can’t be flushed down an Orwellian memory hole, nor rewritten to suit the needs of a willful amnesiac. Indeed, on Fox News Sunday, Chris Wallace (to his credit) pointed out that King had championed a big-government economic agenda, that this was a key facet of the King legacy. What did Beck think of that?
“Well, you know what, Chris? Um, I think that is part of it. But that’s a part of it I don’t agree with.” Bingo.
I have a dream today: That Glenn Beck will leave Martin Luther King alone, so that he and his movement can be reclaimed by those who are truly worthy.
For a different view of the Beck-King event, I’ll offer this piece by the estimable William Saletan….although Christopher Hitchens is most amusing (“so strong is the moral stature of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement that even the white right prefers to pretend to emulate it”).
Meanwhile, in my Sunday newspaper column, I wrote that I’m starting to miss George W. Bush – at least with respect to Muslim-Americans and pluralism.