The rally Glenn Beck staged the other day on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial raises the question of whether he has been reborn in the spirit of the great man he repeatedly invoked: Martin Luther King Jr.
Up to now, there was no confusing Beck with King. Truth be told, Beck was more in the mold of a nemesis of the civil rights struggle, George Corley Wallace, the Alabama governor who stood at a university doorway to block its first two black students from registering. Wallace ran for president as a populist, broadcasting the slogan “Stand Up for America” and railing against “pointy-headed intellectuals” and other assorted liberals. He won strong support in pockets of white America fearful of the racial, social and cultural upheaval under way in the land (think Archie Bunker) – the very same sectors that today revere Beck as a leader of their effort to take their country back.
At Saturday’s rally, however, Beck cooled his shrill, divisive rhetoric, saying: “There’s a lot we can disagree on, but our values and our principles can unite us. We must discover them again.”
What’s more, the next day the talk show host took back the slur he made against President Obama last year – remarks that had epitomized Beck’s tendency to polarize the nation. He had accused Obama of harboring a deep-seated hatred of white people and of being a racist – without resting the accusation on any facts. In an interview on Fox News Sunday, however, Beck finally admitted he had erred and that he regretted the remarks, adding: "I have a big fat mouth sometimes and I say things"
So does Beck’s revival-like rally signal he has atoned for his sins, that he has seen the light, that he has become a new man, in the spirit of King?
I happened to have basked in that spirit at the original March on Washington in 1963. I was a high school kid, D.C. was my home town, and King and his fellow freedom fighters were my heroes. I felt awed and honored to walk in their midst.
Despite the often brutal resistance the civil rights warriors faced in the South, peace and love pervaded the original march. The participants heeded King, who said in his “I Have a Dream” speech: “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.”
So has Beck now ascended to that plane? Unfortunately, the signs so far are that Beck’s conversion is phony.
A case in point: In taking back his Obama slur, Beck still dismissed the president as “a guy who understands the world through liberation theology,” as if that was a bad thing, Yet, liberation theology is precisely what King practiced, as alluded to in his 1963 “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” and stated perhaps most emphatically in his 1958 book, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. The relevant excerpt:
“Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion. Such a religion is the kind that Marxists like to see - an opiate of the people.”
At the rally right-wing darling and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin likewise spoke contradictorily about King. On the one hand: “On this ground where we are so honored to stand today, we feel the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” On the other hand: “We must not fundamentally transform America as someone wants. We must restore America and restore her honor.”
That “someone” is, presumably, Obama. More to the point, the fundamental transformation of America is what King was all about, as he particularly made clear in his 1967 “Where Do We Go From Here?” speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. An excerpt:
“The Movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. … One day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there 40 million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society.”
Since fundamental change through liberation theology was so central to King, there is absolutely no way to trash either concept and still claim to be his disciple.
Beck and Palin remain lost in the wilderness of social unfairness, self-delusion and hucksterism.
“Martin Luther King would have been on Glenn Beck's chalkboard,” Media Matters
King’s “I Have a Dream” speech
King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail"
King’s “Where Do We Go From Here?” speech
Paper on the 1968 campaign rhetoric of George Wallace
Youtube video comparing King’s words at 1963 March on Washington with words of participants at Glenn Beck’s rally