09/07/2010 07:59 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Did Glenn Beck Fool Taylor Branch -- or What?

Taylor Branch is a progressive to be reckoned with when it comes to documenting the history of the American civil rights movement. That's why I was so shocked to read his account of Glenn Beck's Fox-hyped rally in Washington on the anniversary of King's historic "I have a dream" speech.

The piece is titled "Dr. King's Newest Marcher" and the pull-out says "Why Glenn Beck is in sync with the ideals of Martin Luther King" and, although Branch enters many caveats, the overall thrust is that he thinks Beck had a genuine epiphany that led him to depoliticize the event and emphasize religion.

When I first read about Beck deciding on that religious emphasis I assumed that it was yet more evidence of cynical market-driven manipulation. But Branch describes an interview Beck did with Alveda King, MLK's niece, who is pro-life and anti-gay marriage (Branch says he was cringing as he did the research). The way Branch describes it, Alvida introduced Beck to MLK's commitment to non-violence and this somehow dovetailed with his religious inclinations and led him to his epiphany. She gave him a copy of the original 10-point pledge of nonviolence, the form signed by demonstrators preparing to face persecution and jail, and it seemed to strike Beck with the force of revelation, says Branch. "These people were serious about nonviolence," Mr. Beck told his cable audience.

The most relevant quote from the Branch piece (but you should read it all) is: "Mr. Beck himself described undergoing a stark conversion as he organized the rally. 'When I put this together, in my head,' he told the crowd, 'I felt it was supposed to be political.' His promotional announcement had put him 'into a cold sweat' of doubt, however, until personal crisis made him grab an assistant by the lapels, Mr. Beck declared, 'and I pulled him in close, and I screamed in his ear, 'I don't know how, but we're wrong!'' He said an inner voice had told him to drop his slashing polemics, then politics entirely, for an unspecified new theme grounded in spiritual values. 'I don't understand it,' he said he had told his flabbergasted staff, 'but this is where we're going.'"

I frankly can't believe this. I feel like Taylor Branch has been snookered. But, whoa, it would be quite a thing if Glenn Beck, a really dangerous culture warrior, went through anything remotely like this -- if it has lasting effects. Let's see.