Glenn Beck is exploiting MLK’s “I have a Dream” speech. This isn’t the first time conservatives have abused King’s memory to push an ideology opposed to everything he stood for.
Only a few weeks after whitewashing the entire slave trade by falsely claiming our Founding Fathers were both black and white, Glenn Beck is on another mission: the Fox news host is planning a massive “take our country back” Tea Party rally at the Lincoln Memorial — on the anniversary of the day Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Beck’s publicity event pulls the rug out from under civil rights champions who planned a rally honoring King’s memory on that day, but they are organizing to fight back. “We’re going to get together because we are not going to let Glenn Beck own the symbolism of Aug. 28, 2010,” said National Urban League President and CEO Marc Morial. “We need to collaborate and bring together all people of good will, not just black people, on Aug. 28 to send a message that Glenn Beck’s vision of America is not our vision of America.”
Glenn Beck has a long history of Kingsploitation. He has in the past compared himself to King, pilfered King’s words to deflect criticism and spun King’s legacy to promote himself, his show and his tribalistic us (patriotic, hard-working, conservative white Americans) against them (lazy, socialist, government-dependent minorities) rhetoric. But now, he is actually hijacking King’s legacy for purposes that run counter to everything King stood for. This — even more than calling President Obama a racist, more than his ludicrous crying spells — seems to be the most vindictive and spiteful move yet.
In the last years of King’s life, he was vilified by conservative politicians as a communist. He was wiretapped by that nut-job, J. Edgard Hoover. He was followed and his inner circle infiltrated by the FBI. He was Public Enemy Number One in the eyes of conservatives and segregationists. He may now be commodified for church hymnals and one-dimensional historical interpretations, but let’s not forget he was not considered an American hero until after his death.
During his life, King was, in the eyes of conservative Americans, the enemy. His life was ultimately ripped away from him because he stood up to hate and bigotry, the very thing that still ties the conservative base of the Republican party together. (I am not claiming all Republicans are bigots. But I am unabashedly saying that bigorty and fear are cornerstones within its conservative base and that rank-and-file Republicans routinely use that bigotry to perpetuate divisions and distrust among the races.)
Beck’s absurd appropriation of King’s legacy seems shocking, even for a shameless shock jock chasing attention and ratings. But the right wing’s trickery when it comes to race, King and African-American history is old hat.
Other Conservatives Hijacking King’s Legacy
Back in 2008, Libertarian darling Ron Paul was the subject of criticism due to scathing racist remarks that appeared in a Ron Paul newsletter. In response, he decided to hold a fund-raising event called freeatlast2008 on Martin Luther King Day.
In 2006, the ultraconservative think-tank Heritage Foundation also took to spinning King’s legacy. In an essay titled “Martin Luther King’s Conservative Legacy,” it directed conservatives to lay claim to King.
“King was no stalwart conservative, yet his core beliefs, such as the power and necessity of faith-based association and self-government based on absolute truth and moral law, are profoundly conservative,” wrote Carolyn Garris. “Modern liberalism rejects these ideas, while conservatives place them at the center of their philosophy. Despite decades of its appropriation by liberals, King’s message was fundamentally conservative.”
Garris even appropriated King’s own words toward advancing “conservative principles.”
Today, it is conservatives who seek to unite. In a nation divided by cultural diversity, conservatives defend and celebrate the characteristics that we share as Americans. As America drifts from the ideas and ideals of the Founders, conservatives stand with King as believers that the principles of the American Founding are as relevant today as in 1776.
Conservatives cherry-pick and exploit particular phrases, or quotes, while entirely ignoring the totality of what King stood for, what he fought against and why he died.
One snippet, in particular, seems to routinely find its way into conservative talking points. It’s taken from a 1963 address in which King said we should be judged by “the content of our character.” That simple phrase was re-branded and re-packaged into a rallying cry against affirmative action.
In 1994, right-wing media critic David Horowitz said on “Crossfire”: “Martin Luther King, in my view, was a conservative because he stood up for, you know, belief in the content of your character—the value that conservatives defend today.”
In 1991, Charles Krauthammer pitted King against diversity. Progressives, he wrote, “have traded King’s dream for something called diversity….It is the opponents of race-conscious public policy who today speak in the name of values that King championed.”
Then, in 1996, when Gov. Mike Foster abolished affirmative action, he presented the act as somehow being a fulfillment of King’s dream. In fact, one of the original astroturf groups waging an ongoing battle to repeal affirmative action cynically goes by the name American Civil Rights Institute. Ward Connelly and his ACRI have repeatedly been sued for “vaguely” and sometimes “misleadingly” worded petition drives that actually make people believe they are signing on to support civil rights and not to ban all forms of affirmative action. The group has effectively re-branded its campaign against affirmative action as a campaign against “bias.”
It should be noted that the term “affirmative action” had not been coined in King’s lifetime. However, while heading the Southern Christian Leadership Conference King initiated the first successful affirmative action campaign. He and his staff routinely looked at the hiring patterns of companies doing business in black communities and tried to get the companies to address those disparities.
But reality or the truth have little to do with conservative messaging. They rely on some very simple premises: That people really are that stupid, that their memories really are that short, and that no one will bother to challenge them on their deceptive rhetoric. And if someone should question them, they can always say “You’re playing the race card” and therefore deserve no explanation.
The Tea Parties
“A group of white males wealthier than their peers called the Tea Party has risen up in the land,” said Benjamin Jealous of the NAACP. “They say that they want to take the country back. And take it back they surely will. They will take it back to 1963 if we let them.”
NAACP, instead of holding its tribute to King on Aug. 28 as intended, is now holding a national march for jobs and justice on Oct. 2.
“On the anniversary of the March on Washington, Glenn Beck is going to talk about the dream of Martin Luther King and how he was with them – not us. So, we’ve been traveling all over this country because there is no way in the world that I am going to allow him to have more people there than us. I hope every black person in the country will help us to challenge this,” said Rev. Al Sharpton. “Everybody’s got to be in Washington. We can’t let them hijack Dr. King’s dream.”
Hijacking King’s dream and legacy is exactly what Beck and ultraconservatives have been doing for years and will continue to do as long as they go unchallenged. They will continue to wage this war against U.S. history, against reality, and against everything that reveals the truth — that they have always been on the wrong side of the war for Civil Rights. That they are fighting to preserve the past — a past in which many of us, women, minorities and gays — were not allowed freedoms. And they will do so in the name of freedom, in the name of limited government and in the name of capitalism.
Devona Walker has worked for the Associated Press and the New York Times company. Currently she is the senior political and finance reporter for theloop21.com.