On Aug. 29, 2015, an unlikely figure was at the vanguard of a group numbering around 20,000 making its way from Kelly Ingram Park to the Birmingham City Hall. Glenn Beck, the controversial right-wing conservative who made a name for himself with his over-the-top histrionics, organized and led the “Never Again is Now/All Lives Matter Campaign” that walked in the steps of the momentous 1963 Birmingham campaign. The latter is etched in the minds of so many Americans due to the profound images of black marchers being hosed by firemen and brutally attacked and bitten by police dogs.
The 1963 campaign paved the way for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which struck down segregation in the South. Therefore, to say the least, Beck’s place at the head of a march retracing the steps of such a historic movement, led by one of our nation’s most transformational leaders, Martin Luther King Jr., was strangely odd. Yet this wasn’t the first time Beck placed himself in King’s shadow.
In 2010 on the 47th anniversary of King’s “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” he organized the “Restoring Honor” rally at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and donned the mantle of King. Sarah Palin was one of the keynote speakers.
But Beck is not the only uber-conservative co-opting and appropriating King’s message and words. Well known conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh and others have as well.
King’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” in particular his desire to see all Americans judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” has been embraced as, among other things, a call to end any race-based preferences in American society. Such policies are a dishonor and disservice to the message and legacy of King, they claim.
All this begs the question: Why has King become so palatable to many on the far right? I would attribute much of it to the embracing of a “sanitized” King: born of an elementary understanding of the man and his message, sanitized in the sense that both have been made more acceptable, more agreeable. A King who is only understood in the context of the dream he articulated in 1963, and not in the context of the King who increasingly and frustratedly spoke out concerning the nightmarish reality so many in America were grappling with.
They do not know the King who stated, “For a person to lift themselves by their bootstraps, first they need boots!” They’re unaware of the King who, not long before his death, sadly mused, “We have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know that we will win. But I’ve come to believe we’re integrating into a burning house.”
Why did he think black Americans were integrating into a burning house? King elaborates: “I’m afraid that America may be losing what moral vision she may have had … And I’m afraid that, even as we integrate, we are walking into a place that does not understand that this nation needs to be deeply concerned with the plight of the poor and disenfranchised. Until we commit ourselves to ensuring that the underclass is given justice and opportunity, we will continue to perpetuate the anger and violence that tears at the soul of this nation.”
The sanitized King many embrace seems docile, amenable, safe and comfortable. But King lost his life because he was far from being any of these. He was a radical.
In his 1967 Riverside Church speech, known as King’s metaphorical crossing of the Rubicon due to the very forceful and public stance he took against the Vietnam War, King made himself an enemy of President Johnson and even alienated himself from or, at the very least, strained his relationship with many of those he worked with in the Civil Rights movement.
There on April 4, 1967 — a year to the day before his death — King declared the U.S. was the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” He explained he found it difficult to address the violence being carried out by black youth in the ghettos as they burned and destroyed property to protest their conditions, while the American government so easily, readily and consistently perpetuated untold violence in places like Vietnam. The next day he was denounced by 168 major newspapers. King, one national paper noted, was a discredit to himself, his people and to his country.
In embracing a sanitized King, one may be unaware that in the time leading up to his death King in many ways had become a pariah in American society. He was seen by many whites, and not just Southern whites, as a “publicity hog” or a “camera chaser,” someone who just enjoyed getting his face on television. He was considered a rabble rouser.
King no longer made the annual Gallup list of the most admired Americans. Even among many blacks he was seen as a relic of a bygone era. It took death to bring the man and his message back into focus.
Monday as we celebrate King’s birth, let’s do so with a greater and correct understanding of the passion, purpose and profoundness of the man. King said he wanted to be remembered as a “drum major for justice.” Using words some considered treasonous, pursuing policies that today would be labeled as class warfare and dedicating his life to equality for all in a way that induced the scorn and wrath of many, he was a drum major without equal, and one whom thoughtful men would be careful in trying to class themselves.