Glenn Beck’s MLK Dream is Perverse, But What’s Our Vision?

Beck and the right have been the loudest national voices on race for too long.

By Kai Wright Aug 26, 2010

Glenn Beck says it’s "divine providence" that his "Restoring Honor" rally coincides with the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s "I Have a Dream" speech. Maybe so. It’s been a little over a year since the beer summit eclipsed the debate over whether health care is a fundamental right, and these past 12 months have brought a steady parade of similar perversions. Beck parodying King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial seems an apt finale.

Beck has spent the past several months needling today’s civil rights leaders with the charge that they screwed up King’s dream. He’s asserted that groups like the NAACP and, most menacingly, ACORN lost their way when they veered into the murky waters of "economic justice" and "social justice." King’s vision, he has lectured, was about equal rights–about discarding racial markers of any kind so every individual can compete in the true American tradition.

"Far too many have either gotten just lazy or they have purposely distorted Martin Luther King’s ideas of judge a man by the content of his character," Beck said last week in June when defending the timing of his rally, which will be held on Saturday’s anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. "Lately, in the last 20 years, we’ve been told that character doesn’t matter. Well, if character doesn’t matter, then what was Martin Luther King asking people to judge people by?"

Beck insists the event was originally planned for September 12, but that date fell on a Sunday and he couldn’t make folks work on the Sabbath. Picking August 28 as the alternate, he says, was a mundane decision: It was the only date that worked for all the principals’ schedules. But Beck welcomes the timing. "This is a moment that we reclaim the civil rights movement," he declared on his radio show in May. "It has been so distorted and turned upside down, it’s an abomination."

Such theatrics are typical for Beck–his political performances generated $32 million between March 2009 and March 2010–but the ideas behind them are neither new nor particularly radical for the right. Conservatives long ago set out to derail the civil rights movement by co-opting it. Like Beck, the right’s Beltway think tanks have always narrowly framed the movement’s goals as achieving equal rights and fostering social grace–with victory declared on both fronts. The fact that the proverbial conversation about race is now more focused on racial harmony than racial justice is proof they’ve succeeded.

Ironically, Beck, Fox and the Tea Party have finally provided today’s civil rights leaders a tangible target for challenging this frame-shift. Next generation advocacy groups like Color of Change have consistently targeted Fox, most recently with a campaign to hold the network accountable for Beck’s behavior. The NAACP’s effort to make the Tea Party take responsibility for racists in its ranks seems like a similar effort to reclaim control of the discussion. Several groups have planned their own march for Saturday, which will culminate on the National Mall.* Organizers insist they’re not looking for a showdown. "At no point will we interchange," Rev. Al Sharpton told the Washington Post. "We will not desecrate the march and what King stood for."

All of this, of course, begs the question of what King, his movement and this iconic speech in  fact stood for–and what reformers stand for today. 

There are many things about King’s dream speech that Beck won’t likely point out at this weekend’s gathering. Perhaps top among them: The 1963 March on Washington was the work of a war-resisting labor organizer, A. Philip Randolph, and an openly gay man, Bayard Rustin, who was himself a war-resisting socialist.

The event’s actual name was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. That moniker was a compromise between King, who wanted a more focused event, and Randolph, who helped broker the broad constituency that made the march the largest peacetime gathering in the nation’s history at the time. King’s iconic speech reflected the event’s dual focus on economic and political justice–and it included much, much more than a call to judge people by their character.

King began the speech by harking back to the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation as a "great beacon of light." But he quickly pivoted to the ways in which that light had dimmed. "One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity," King declared. "We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one," he later added.

He talked about change-making in starkly radical terms, explicitly rejecting the purported pragmatism we’re now urged to accept on everything from immigration to jobs to health care. "This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism," he insisted. Before he got around to kids holding hands and singing about freedom, King talked about the "whirlwinds of revolt" that would make that moment possible, about the need to "shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges."

Indeed, even when King finally arrived at his dream moment of childlike racial harmony, he set it up as the counter to cynical Southern politicians who refused to obey federal laws. "I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor’s lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and little white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers."

Swap Arizona for Alabama and the refrain still works today.

But such language would likely get a racial justice leader catcalled out of Washington today. It’d be considered too divisive, too combative. It certainly wouldn’t poll well. No, King’s actual dream would likely render him the target of dismissive White House snark about unrealistic lefties.

Which is perhaps the lesson to take from these past 12 months of watching Glenn Beck, Andrew Breitbart and the Tea Party dominate the air waves–and set the boundaries for what’s politically reasonable on everything from immigration reform to job creation. If Beck’s the loudest national voice talking about King’s dream, he’ll be the one who defines how we make it manifest.

*An earlier version of this post incorrectly reported that the rally will conclude at the Lincoln Memorial. It will end at the planned site of a new memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr.