A Champion of Federal Power

09/02/2010 07:54 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

America is currently engaged in a fierce debate about the proper role of government in our constitutional republic. Conservative Americans -- particularly the Tea Party movement -- have advocated for less government intervention and a return to what they see as the founding principals of this country. Progressive Americans, on the other hand, speak to the benefits of an active and efficient federal government. This ideological dichotomy in our body politic has become the defining feature of the upcoming November elections, and it was put on full display this past Saturday at two mass rallies in our nation's capitol.

The first of these events was the "Reclaim the Dream" rally in commemoration of the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream Speech" at the March on Washington. Tens of thousands of people of all races and ages paid tribute to Dr. King's vision for our country at a rally at Dunbar High School. They then marched to the site where the MLK Memorial will stand on the National Mall. I was proud to attend the event along with other CSGV staffers.

The second event was radio and Fox News host Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally, which was billed as an "event that pays tribute to America's service personnel and other upstanding citizens who embody our nation's founding principles of integrity, truth and honor." Beck also said his rally was a way to reflect on and honor Dr. King. He claimed that progressives had "massively perverted" King's dream and boasted that he would "reclaim the civil rights movement" from those that had turned it into an "abomination."

Even a casual observer could see that the primary attendees of the "Restoring Honor" rally were hard-core conservatives. "Don't Tread on Me" flags and Tea Party t-shirts were seemingly everywhere. Glenn Beck, whose programs feature caustic right wing political commentary, was one featured speaker, along with former Alaskan governor/vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, a divisive political figure that has endorsed 23 Tea Party candidates. However, if Tea Partiers--with their constant ravings about the "tyranny" of the Obama administration--showed up to bring the the civil rights movement back to its original roots, then they grossly misread the message that Dr. King brought to Washington 47 years ago.

Reverend Al Sharpton, the lead organizer of the "Reclaim the Dream" rally and former youth director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's "Operation Breadbasket" program, has made it clear in recent weeks that "Dr. King was an advocate for federal government as he knew it was the only effective way to ensure a unified system of equality in every state." Sharpton went on to say, "During the struggle for civil rights in the 1950's and 1960's, it was more often than not, the federal government that intervened when state policies failed us. At Clinton High School in Tennessee, it was the National Guard troops that protected Black students as they enter a desegregated educational facility for the first time. And it was the [U.S.] Supreme Court that ruled segregation resulted in unfair and unequal practices to begin with in the...Brown vs. Board of Education decision. It was federal policies that allowed blacks and other folks of color to exercise their right to vote and voice their opinion in the politics and social issues of the day. It was national regulation of discriminatory housing and zoning laws that afforded the marginalized a shot at the American dream. And if we take it all the way back to the days of emancipation, it was a president and a federal government that ended the abhorrent institution of slavery." Put simply, a platform that seeks to demonize and weaken our federal government runs counter to what King "fought and literally died for."

Support for an energetic, capable federal government was a policy not only of Dr. King, but also of our Founding Fathers. Contrary to Tea Party movement propaganda, our Founders drafted the Constitution for the explicit purpose of creating a strong federal government because the Articles of Confederation (which focused almost entirely on states' rights) led to widespread political and economic instability. As recently noted by the Constitutional Accountability Center, "A close look at the Tea Party's version of the Constitution shows that it bears little resemblance to our actual Constitution, departs sharply from the Founders' vision for American, and could threaten some of the constitutional values Americans cherish most." This was on full display in May when Rand Paul, the GOP's candidate for the U.S. Senate in Kentucky, expressed a desire to roll back provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act so private businesses can discriminate on the basis of race without fear of federal intervention.

A schism in views about government regulation of firearms was also apparent at the rallies. At the "Reclaim the Dream" rally, Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence Board Member Bob Bates spoke about the importance of enacting sensible gun laws at the federal level. Specifically, Bates called on the government to enact laws to protect children from guns, require universal background checks on firearm purchasers, and tighten regulation of gun dealers.

On the other hand, attendees at the "Restoring Honor" rally decried gun laws that are overwhelming popular even among gun owners and expressed an insurrectionist view of the Second Amendment. One attendee told our staff that President Obama is "probably" coming to take his guns, and when he does, he can have them "one bullet at a time."

The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence's affiliate organization, the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, interviewed participants at the "Restoring Honor" rally and compared their statements to those of Dr. King in a video on YouTube. The video has received more than 95,000 views to date.

Dr. King, himself the victim of America's "readiness to allow arms to be purchased at will and fired at whim," shaped an enduring legacy as one of America's greatest proponents of both nonviolence and federal power. During the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s, he made it clear that, "The problems of poverty, urban life, unemployment, education, housing, medical care, and flexible foreign policy were dependent on positive and forthright action from the federal government." Tea Partiers, Glenn Beck followers, and others who would claim his mantle must acknowledge that that statement is no less true today.