This coming weekend brings us the Aug. 28 anniversary of the March on Washington back in 1963. It was when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech from the Lincoln Memorial. At least 250,000 people, 75-80 percent black, rallied in the Mall. Each year the anniversary rolls around, you’ll hear plenty of high-flown strophes from prominent progressives, black and white, evoking King’s dream of racial justice and equality. Barack Obama’s speechwriters are no doubt polishing just such an commentary by their boss. In terms of political energy, the event is as inert as Labor Day, itself just around the corner at the start of September.
But this year brings welcome relief from such pietism. The premier anniversary celebration of the march has been hijacked by the right-wing commentator Glenn Beck. The prime speaker will be Sarah Palin, the tea party’s pin-up girl and as unlikely as any woman in Alaska ever to have had a pin-up of MLK on her dorm wall. To have the March on Washington honored by Beck and Palin is as shocking to liberal America as installing Jefferson Davis, president of the Southern slave states in the Civil War, next to Lincoln.
Beck admits that when he scheduled a rally in Washington on August 28 to boost his new book The Plan and strut his stuff to the Tea Party masses he had no idea it was the anniversary of the March. But he swiftly turned ignorance into opportunity. He’s now saying that’s he is working “to finish the job” that was at the heart of the 1963 March on Washington and King’s vision.
Beck claims the ideas of King have been corrupted and that he will resurrect the true King. As part of this mission, Beck is trying to separate Dr. King from social justice and limit him to advocacy of individual Christian salvation. According to reporter Dedrick Muhammad of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., “Beck has even reached out to distant relatives of Dr. King, like Dr. King’s niece. After questioning her several times, he gets her to say that King was not about social justice or government redistribution of the wealth.”
From the left comes the angry response that King was indeed committed to the need to redistribute wealth in order to advance a more just nation and was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., in 1968, in the course of a visit to black city workers on strike.
If Beck’s hijacking provokes some honesty among blacks specifically and the left in general about King, then Beck will have performed a useful service.
The March of 1963 was actually called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It wasn’t King’s idea, and his was only one of five sponsoring groups. Some of these saw the march’s purpose as not high-flown talk about dreams, but as harsh reproof of President John Kennedy. They accused him dragging his feet on giving legislative heft to the civil rights movement that had moved into high gear three years earlier.
King’s political career was heading into crisis. Three years later, he was booed by blacks at a rally in Chicago. He recalled later what he thought that night: “I had preached to them about my dream. I had lectured to them about the not-too-distant day when they would have freedom ‘all, here and now.’ I had urged them to have faith in America and in white society. Their hopes had soared. They were now booing because they had felt we were unable to deliver on our promises. … They were now hostile because they were watching the dream they had so readily accepted turn into a nightmare.”
It was one thing to force a chain restaurant in Greensboro, N.C., to allow blacks sit at a previously Whites Only counter; it was quite another to attack the racism embedded in the American system so savagely excoriated by the great black revolutionary of the 1960s, Malcolm X, assassinated in 1965.
Beck, to a certain extent, has it right. In 1963, King was on the same tack as another man professing confidence in the American system to engender justice out of an innate tropism to do the right thing, Barack Obama in 2008. King was wrong then, just like Obama was 45 years later.
King moved to the left. In Riverside Church in New York, a year before his death, he gave a far more powerful sermon than the 1963 “I have a dream” address. He called the U.S. government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today … A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. … True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. … It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
This was a far cry from what White Power wanted from King, which was the soft rhetorical pillow on which all Dreamers could lay their heads: MLK’s dream that “we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”
On Aug. 28, 47 years after the March for Jobs and Freedom, America is plunging into the vortex of long-term mass unemployment. No jobs, particularly for young blacks.
So much for jobs. What about freedom?
Thirty years ago, fewer than 350,000 people were held in prisons and jails in the United States. Today, the number of prisoners in the United States exceeds 2 million. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics concludes that the chance of a black male born in 2001 of going to jail is 32 percent or 1 in three. Black boys are five times as likely as white boys to go to jail. Former prisoners are permanently relocated on society’s margins — these days, some 5 million of them — denied the right to vote in most states. Professor Michelle Alexander, in her book “The New Jim Crow,” argues convincingly that we have a purposeful system of mass incarceration, with blacks as the prime victims.
Today, in this fearful crisis, there is no effective black leadership, starting with Obama who has marvelously fulfilled his function as political sedator of black aspirations, starting with the promotion of his own success story. “Yes, we can.”
Black politicians are well aware that most of their black constituents will stay with Obama till the end, whatever he does. So most of them remain quiet — and yield the stage to an opportunist like Beck, flanked by Palin. Malcolm X, who called the 1963 March on Washington “a picnic” and “a circus,” would have had a good laugh about that.
Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book “Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils,” available through www.counterpunch.com.
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