The complexity of a civil rights icon and why Glenn Beck isn’t his heir.
On the warm Saturday morning that was Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor rally, I was slowly squeezing my way through a dense crowd, trying to make my way past the World War II Memorial. The National Mall was covered in a sea of people; men, women, and children abuzz about a historical event, but dressed in short-sleeves and khaki shorts, as though they were just going to another youth baseball game. People were craning their necks, standing on their tiptoes, and shifting for a better view. Others had given up and were sitting on the marble memorial.
It was in the midst of all this that five protesters suddenly appeared, worming their way through the crowd. Most were young, shaggy, wearing black; clearly born in the wrong decade. They had large poster board signs hoisted above their heads. “BECK IS A F’KIN RACIST!” one screamed. “FIGHT HATE! TURN OFF FOX NEWS!” another exclaimed. “I’M BROWN AND A U.S. CITIZEN! WHY ARE YOU SO SCARED OF ME?” another demanded.
Actually it turned out the Tea Partiers weren’t that scared at all. As the wannabe rabble-rousers waved their signs and jeered, most of the Tea Partiers ignored them or offered a brief smile. A few stepped forward to calmly debate. One woman looked at me with a grin. “We should sing Amazing Grace,” she said.
Was this the sort of peaceful tolerance that characterized Dr. Martin Luther King’s protests 47 years earlier? I’m not sure, but the incident brought King to the forefront into my mind.
After accidentally scheduling his rally for August 28, the anniversary of King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, Glenn Beck had made several bold pronouncements about renewing the civil rights movement. Beck said his rally would “pick up Martin Luther King’s dream that has been distorted and lost”. Later he declared, “We are the inheritors and the protectors of the civil rights movement” while the left is “perverting it.”
This rings true in one sense. The left long ago abandoned King’s dream of racial unity. Instead craven progressive operators use the word “racist” as an assault weapon against their political enemies, to the point that the word has lost its real meaning. The left has cynically exploited the civil rights movement to its advantage. Beck is completely correct about that.
He’s also correct that, to the extent that King’s dream was equal opportunity under the law, conservatives are again his heirs. The left, with its obsession over preferences for different groups, long ago abandoned this tradition.
But Beck also can’t neatly fit his own agenda into King’s dream. There’s been a larger argument made implicitly by Beck and explicitly by a handful of other commentators that were King alive today, he would have been a conservative. David Horowitz has declared outright that “Martin Luther King, in my view, was a conservative.”
IT’S UNDERSTANDABLE THAT CONSERVATIVES are eager to claim such an American hero as one of their own. But it simply doesn’t stand up to the facts. To understand King’s commitment to equality under the law is to only see a snapshot of his thinking. It’s like taking a picture of a horse-drawn carriage, and then cropping out the horses. We can see the buggy, but we have no idea what makes it move.
To honor King’s incredible accomplishments, we have woven a story about him that has become a legend in American folklore. It’s a comfortable and inspiring narrative that we can tell our children around the campfire: In the violently racist South, a charismatic Christian reverend led his followers in a series of sit-ins and protests, fighting violence with nonviolence and injustice with hope, and ultimately liberated southern blacks from segregation. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this. Every historical movement needs a touchstone. King is a perfect representative of the civil rights movement. He is unquestionably an American hero.
But in any hagiography, certain inconvenient details must be omitted. In Martin Luther King’s case, our traditional understanding ignores the radical and collectivist thinking that defined his activism. As historian Clayborne Carson has noted, “The historical King was far too interesting to be encased in simple, didactic legends designed to offend no one.”
King wanted agitation and action. Despite his pacifism, he fought the battle for civil rights as a hero fighting a villain. Those who didn’t join his cause were either bigots or queasy liberals who needed to straighten their spines and choose sides. The issue for King was not earning liberty but seizing it. King wanted not to shake his opponents’ hands, but squeeze them so tightly that they relented.
“The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation,” he wrote. “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” To the modern conservative ear, those words sound lifted from the works of Saul Alinsky rather than the most cherished civil rights hero in our history.
By 1967, it had become clear that King was after something larger than just equal rights for African-Americans. That year, he delivered a blistering speech condemning the United States’ involvement in Vietnam. King had always winced at the war, but his uneasy alliance with Lyndon Johnson had restrained him from criticizing it in public. He broke his silence with a stinging address in New York City that mimicked the rhetoric of other anti-war radicals of the time. He hailed the revolutions in Indochina, mounted a defense of the National Liberation Front, called his government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” and accused American soldiers of shepherding Vietnamese into concentration camps. The president wasn’t amused. “What is that goddamn nigger preacher trying to do to me?” Johnson reportedly exclaimed.
That same year, King published a book titled Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? The thick tome had King venting about how he had been unable to deliver on his promises of equality. He railed against racism, but traced the problem of white supremacy back to more sinister evils: greed, economic stratification, the profit motive. Slavery was an “attempt to give a moral sanction to a profitable system.” He wasn’t abandoning his fight against racism, but broadening it to include all those who had been impoverished by American avarice — “Phase Two” as he codenamed it.