Another Perspective

A Legend Fit for a King

The complexity of a civil rights icon and why Glenn Beck isn't his heir.

By 9.3.10

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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.

King began attacking the horrific poverty that ravaged the ghettoes of northern cities, a topic that didn't sit comfortably with many of his northern liberal sympathizers. "There are, in fact, more poor white Americans than there are Negro," he wrote in Where Do We Go From Here. "Their need for a war on poverty is no less desperate than the Negro's. In the South, they have been deluded by race prejudice and largely remained aloof from common action. Ironically, with this posture, they were fighting not only the Negro, but themselves."

KING'S FIGHT FOR RACIAL EQUAL RIGHTS was only one act in his grand opera of peaceful revolution. He wanted parity not just between black and white, but also between rich and poor -- what today's conservatives would criticize as "equal outcome, not equal opportunity." He saw his bloodless protests as the only thing standing between whites, and the shotgun-wielding Black Panthers and radical Weathermen terrorists who wanted total upheaval.

Phase Two began taking shape in 1968 when King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference started organizing the Poor People's Campaign. They fanned out across the country and recruited what they called "a multiracial army of the poor" to march on Washington, DC and protest economic inequality. The strikers were instructed in "militant nonviolence" by the SCLC leadership. The idea was to create a revolution comparable to the recent flash of third-world uprisings, but do it nonviolently. King anticipated tens of thousands of protesters housed in tent cities in Washington to show the grinding poverty that many Americans lived in. During the day, his army would deploy across Washington, D.C., using their massive numbers to block access to federal buildings. The gigantic sit-ins would force America to confront its class apathy. King intended to stay in Washington until the government addressed issues of economic inequality.

King's term of surrender was an economic bill of rights. This would be a series of governmental guarantees to the poor to help level the supposedly tilted economic playing field. Among other things, the economic bill of rights would have nationalized certain industries, distributed $30 billion in an anti-poverty package, and guaranteed an annual income for every American. This has been a popular idea with socialists and progressives throughout the 20th century. Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously proposed an economic bill of rights during his presidency. Barack Obama's regulation czar Cass Sunstein still wants one.

None of it was to be. On April 3, 1968, as the Poor People's Campaign was still taking shape, King hauntingly told a crowd, "It really doesn't matter what happens now…some began to…talk about the threats that were out -- what would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers…Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place, but I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will." The next day, he was cut down by an assassin's bullet as he organized with his poor soldiers. The Poor People's Campaign marched on Washington that May nearly 50,000 strong, but it was broken up a mere month later, the shantytowns scuttled by police wary after the rioting that followed King's death.

The Reverend Martin Luther King truly had sacrificed everything. As he expanded his focus to all of America's underprivileged, his closest allies fled. President Johnson withdrew his support. Many in the SCLC abandoned King, as did many black preachers. Media outlets like Time and Reader's Digest turned on him with a vengeance. King became sullen, fully aware that, as his support and protection evaporated, the Poor People's Campaign could bring his death. One night he was overheard crying from the bottom of a whiskey bottle, "I don't want to do this anymore! I want to go back to my little church!" Shamefully, he would never have the chance.

IT WAS NO COINCIDENCE that King was a radical and not a conservative. He was the heir of an intellectual clash within the civil rights movement almost a century earlier. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois locked horns over the future of the civil rights movement.

Washington, a Virginia slave freed after the Civil War, was a conservative in the tradition of Edmund Burke. He contended that political rights for former slaves could only be achieved once the black community had bolstered itself from within. He believed that racism was an evil with roots buried deep in American history that had wreaked havoc on both blacks and whites. Any attempts to suddenly throw it off would cause chaos.

"The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremist folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing," he said.

Du Bois, an educated black sociologist from western New England, initially admired Washington. But he eventually grew tired of the slow social progress of blacks, which he blamed on Washington's "accommodationism." He charged that Washington was harming the black community by portraying African-Americans as inferior and putting too much emphasis on the glories of manual labor. Du Bois was the idealist to Washington's realist. Washington wanted blacks to climb up the ladder. Du Bois wanted to knock the ladder over.

Du Bois spent much of his years penning fire-and-brimstone screeds for the NAACP magazine Crisis that railed against America and its white elites. After World War I, DuBois raged: "By the God of Heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if now that the war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight the forces of hell in our own land." Ultimately DuBois joined the Communist Party USA, gave up on his country, traveled abroad, and returned flush with praise for dictators like Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-tung. He died in Ghana in 1963.

But Du Bois' confrontational approach lived on. Given the choice between Booker T. Washington's conservatism and W.E.B. Du Bois' progressivism, the African-American community chose the latter. Economic radicalism became infused with the civil rights movement.

Forty days before Du Bois would take his last breath, Martin Luther King was at Carnegie Hall honoring the newfound Ghanan's hundredth birthday. Once again, King decided to shake up the established thinking. "We cannot talk of Dr. Du Bois without recognizing that he was a radical all of his life," King said. "Some people would like to ignore the fact that he was a Communist in his later years. It is worth noting that Abraham Lincoln warmly welcomed the support of Karl Marx during the Civil War and corresponded with him freely." King continued, "It is time to cease muting the fact that Dr. Du Bois was a genius and chose to be a Communist. Our irrational obsessive anti-communism has led us into too many quagmires to be retained as if it were a mode of scientific thinking."

None of this is to suggest that Martin Luther King himself was a communist (although that possibility certainly exists). But King subscribed to an economic progressivism that sometimes overlapped with Marxism. Additionally, many of King's closest associates, including Stanley David Levison, Bayard Rustin, and the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, had alleged connections to the Communist Party USA. King certainly wouldn't have shared Glenn Beck's -- and many of our -- concerns about "Marxists in the government."

Of course this doesn't mean that Glenn Beck and other conservatives can't honor Martin Luther King and have faith in his dream of equal opportunity for every individual. But we need to understand that the real Martin Luther King was vastly more complex than American folklore now makes him out to be.

It's a testament to King's incredible activism that nearly everyone today regards him as a mythical hero. But he wasn't an immortal and he wasn't a saint. He was a man just like any of us. He had good ideas and bad ideas; he had strengths and flaws. And from a conservative perspective, one of those flaws was his acceptance of economic ideas that we find dead wrong.

The most important way for conservatives to honor King is to understand him in his entirety, not just through the soothing legend we've written for ourselves. We can disagree with King's greater idea of economic revolution while still honoring his struggle to make America the very best that it can be.

Like King, Glenn Beck is calling for America to live up to its values. But where as King wanted to hurtle America forward through a revolution, Beck wants us to look backwards to our founding principles and what made America great in the first place.

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About the Author

Matt Purple is an editor at Rare.us.