On Aug. 28, I found myself in Washington, D.C. on the date of Fox News host and self-described “rodeo clown” Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally. Naturally, out of morbid curiosity, I decided to amble over to the Lincoln Memorial just to see what I would find. With all of the feigned outrage at Beck’s decision to host his rally on the 47th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, I was half-expecting to see a rabid mob of crazed neo-segregationists brandishing signs decrying President Obama’s plan for white slavery and lamenting how “the zoo has an African lion and the White House has a lyin’ African.” The reality, of course, was far more mundane.
Nevertheless, a wide cohort of liberal personalities has condemned the timing of Beck’s rally for its insensitivity, alleging that the occurrence of such an event on such an important day for African Americans was sacrilegious. The words of the reliably indignant Rev. Al Sharpton at his lightly-attended “Reclaim the Dream” counter-rally, for example, demonstrated as much. “This is our day, and we ain’t giving it away,” Sharpton blustered. “They want to disgrace this day.”
This notion, that the right to venerate King is exclusive to, one must assume, African Americans and likeminded liberals, is odious, far more odious than Glenn Beck’s desire to “reclaim the civil rights movement.” King is and ought to be an icon who transcends ideological divisions, and the execrable politicization of his legacy by the left must be repudiated.
Some have argued that Beck’s conservative politics rendered his presence at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial a perversion of King’s dream and cause. After all, as The Root’s Senior Biracial Correspondent David Swerlick points out, King supported organized labor and affirmative action, opposed the Vietnam War, and probably would have voted for President Obama. Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, likewise, reminds us that “The full name of the event at which King spoke 47 years ago was the ‘March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom’” and that “Among its organizers was labor leader A. Philip Randolph, the founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and a vice president of the AFL-CIO.”
The idea that sharing King’s liberal ideology is a prerequisite to honoring him at the site of, and on the anniversary of, his speech is preposterous, for King’s political beliefs are quite irrelevant to why he is considered significant. King’s contribution to America was his championing of civil rights for ethnic minorities, not his less successful efforts to fight poverty and end the conflict in Vietnam. To claim that in order to honor King, one must honor his liberalism, is to minimize him in the same manner that conservatives have sought to minimize another great American, President Franklin Roosevelt, Class of 1904, by remembering him as nothing more than a liberal rather than the conductor of the American war effort against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Many Britons, one would expect, would balk if one were to suggest that only members of the Conservative Party and Tory sympathizers should be able to revere Winston Churchill or hold political events on the anniversary of “We Shall Fight Them on the Beaches.”
While civil rights may have been a liberal cause at the time and the preservation of segregation a conservative one, civil rights is now a matter of universal consensus. To pretend that the conservatives of today share the ideology, and thus the enmity with King, of the conservatives of yesterday is insulting and false. There is no reason why a liberal Beck-style rally would be any less perverse than a conservative one. In fact, we should be encouraged by the sight of hundreds of thousands of Southern white conservatives gathering to extol a man once seen as dangerous by many of their parents and grandparents.
Furthermore, while “Restoring Honor” was undeniably conservative in composition, it was hardly conservative in tenor. At Beck’s request, the event was free of any Tea Party signage or anti-Obama rhetoric. The president’s name was never mentioned, nor was any other politician’s. The event was exclusively devoted to celebrating America, God, and the troops, serving in part as a fundraiser for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation. In fact, the bewildering ambiguity of the event was so pervasive that, in the words of radio host John Batchelor, it “is not about anything at all. It is a farce of an event.”
All of this having been said, this is no apologia for Beck’s other actions. There is no defense, in spite of a belated and suspect apology, for his labeling the president a “racist” with a “deep-seated hatred of white people.” Nor does this pardon Beck for harboring the sort of megalomaniacal delusions that would persuade him to host such an event as “Restoring Honor” in the first place. But no matter Beck’s other transgressions, he is no less entitled than Sharpton to hold a rally on that most significant of dates.
Dhruv K. Singhal ’12, a Crimson associate editorial editor, is an English concentrator in Currier House.