Last week in a commentary in the Huffington Post, we promised not to prejudge Glenn Beck's planned Lincoln Memorial rally to "Restore Honor" on the 47th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.s "I Have A Dream" speech. With the rally concluded, however, it is time to weigh in not in anticipation of the planned event, but on the event that unfolded.
In Sunday's New York Times, op-ed columnist Ross Douthat essentially suggested that the rally was bland enough that people on either side of the issue could see what they wanted in it:
A Beck admirer could spin "Restoring Honor" as proof that left-wing fears about the Tea Partiers are overblown: free of rancor, racism or populist resentment, the atmosphere at the rally resembled that of a church picnic or a high school football game. But a suspicious liberal could retort that all the God-and-Christ talk and military tributes were proof enough that a sinister Christian nationalism lurked beneath the surface.
It is easy to agree with Douthat on this point. But surely a man like Beck would not purposely design a television event to be so unfocused that it meant to be read as pep rally, a come-to-Jesus meeting and anything in between. In his eyes, at least, it must have been one or the other.
The significant differential between this rally and the Movement's March of forty-seven years earlier was a sense of purpose. However, if forced to choose, I saw Beck's rally principally as an attempt to strengthen a conservative political base through an evangelical call for the nation to rededicate itself to God. Make no mistake, that would be the Christian version of God.
This is strange. Surely if Beck sees the Gettysburg Address as "American scripture" (which, despite its brilliance, is not a founding document), how much more so must he consider the US Constitution? Yet this is the document that includes the phrase "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."
Religion seems to play big for Beck, possibly because it plays big for his audience and/or his political party. Honor was somehow de facto entwined with christianity in the DNA of the rally. Yet this quality, it could be mentioned, springs from all manner of people, including atheists.
But there was a heartening side to Beck's rally, what Douthat called "a strange, unlooked-for fulfillment of King's prophecies." He's referring to that fact that all these years after the "I Have a Dream" speech, on its anniversary, every time King's name was spoken or the Dream was referenced, the crowd, predominantly white, cheered. Many of whom, it is fair to imagine, are the descendants of those whites who opposed equality and, yes, "honor" for African-Americans a half-century earlier.
This is what bothers Rev. Al Sharpton, who organized a counter-"March" to reclaim The Dream. But it shouldn't. In trying to take ownership or view Beck's invocation of King as some kind of theft, members of the modern black struggle are turning off potential allies and, more importantly, missing the point that Dr. King's Dream was an American Dream, not just an African-American Dream.
One of Dr. King's most important intellectual contributions to the Civil Rights Movement was the idea that, representing such a minority percentage of the population, African-Americans could not hope to change the country unless we convinced a significant portion of the majority that it was in their self-interest to do so. In 1963 approximately only 20-25% of the attendees were white; last weekend, 80-90% of the estimated Beck participants were white. And it's worth saying again: They applauded Dr. King's legacy at every turn.
They certainly cheered when Sarah Palin said, "We feel the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. who gave voice to our dream for a better America."
Have the conservatives come around? Not quite. Palin may have likened the rally participants to the civil rights activists from 1963, but shortly before the rally, she had come to the defense of syndicated radio talk show host Dr. Laura Schlesinger's repeated use of the N-word during a conversation with a listener. Palin suggested that no apology was necessary, that Dr. Laura should just "reload."
The legendary labor and civil-rights leader and "godfather" of the original March On Washington was a man named A. Phillip Randolph. He constantly said that "We Negroes have no permanent friends, nor permanent enemies; only permanent interests. Your friend today could become your enemy tomorrow; your enemy today could become your friend tomorrow."
That may well be a description of Beck. In a radio interview, he is reported to have apologized for calling President Obama "a racist, who hates white people." (One wonders if Beck would have even convened such a rally if an African-American was not seated in the White House?) However, Beck told his radio listeners that Dr. King's Dream "has been so corrupted." In referring to his rally, he said "We are the people of the Civil Rights Movement. We are the ones that must stand for civil and equal rights, justice, and equal justice." Presumably in referring to our Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s, he said that his rally does not seek "special justice" nor "social justice," as if we were asking to be taken care of as opposed to our willingness to make the necessary sacrifices to achieve our own personal dignity under our U.S. Constitution.
Comments like this only undermine Beck's credibility. No serious, rational person, with even a passing familiarity of the history of America in the last half of the twentieth century, can assume that Beck really believes this nonsense. Rather, he found himself on the horns of a dilemma. He wanted to use the power of Dr. King's legacy to leverage his own agenda that doesn't square with the Dream. He wanted to trade on Dr. King's sacrifice without making any of his own. That doesn't sound very Christian at all.
While Dr. King's message of love and inclusion may endure, it is clear to see that his "Dream" has been only partially realized and celebrated by flawed messengers. Clearly, Beck has become another of these messengers who, even if otherwise intended, is corrupting and perverting the legacy of Dr. King. Consequently, no matter what other laudatory sentiments expressed at Beck's rally, as someone who worked with Dr. King, I can safely say it would not live up to his standards of social progress.
It's a shame, because Beck had the crowd, had the cameras, had the opportunity to change the game. He even had the 24-hour news channel, a daily radio program, the smart-phones, the Internet and all the social media to build up support. This is a lot more than Dr. King, Bayard Rustin, and the other true civil rights pioneers had in 1963.