August 28 will mark the 47th
anniversary of Martin Luther King's seminal "I Have a Dream
" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The occasion, however, will be marked by an orator of a decidedly different stripe standing at the foot of the memorial's marble steps: Glenn Beck
, frontman of the populist conservative Tea Party movement.
Beck, asserting that whites "do not own" the legacy of Abraham Lincoln and, by this logic, "blacks don't own
Martin Luther King," said on his own radio program
in June that he initially chose the day by default. Originally planned for Sunday, Sept. 12, Beck changed the date because he was not "going to ask anyone to work on the Sabbath." When one of his staff members informed him of the significance of Aug. 28, Beck says he thought the coincidence was "divine providence."
Civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Al Sharpton and NAACP President Benjamin Jealous, have decried the timing of the rally. National Urban League President Marc Morial
called the "Restoring Honor" event "an effort to embarrass and poke a finger in the eye of the civil rights community because Glenn Beck and his public utterances don't necessarily demonstrate a consistency with the vision of King."
Sharpton and the NAACP, the Urban League and Martin Luther King III are planning a "Reclaim the Dream
" march the same day as Beck's rally. Their event will begin at D.C.'s Dunbar High School and end at the future site of the Martin Luther King memorial. A press release
for the march describes "the Tea Party and allied conservatives" as "trying to break the crux of what the civil rights movement symbolized and what Dr. King fought and literally died for," but Sharpton was quick to say
the event was not a "countermarch" or confrontation with Beck. "At no point will we interchange [with Beck and his supporters]," said Sharpton. "We will not desecrate the march and what King stood for."
But what of Beck's assertion that the Tea Party and its followers have as much right to King's legacy as anyone else? Garrett Epps, a University of Baltimore law school professor, said, "I think that the embrace of King is a real problem for people like Glenn Beck because [King] is a very powerful moral and political figure" -- and one who doesn't easily fit into the Tea Party rubric.
Because of this, Epps argues that Beck presents a revisionist history that allows ultraconservatives like Beck -- a man who once asserted President Obama harbors "a deep-seated hatred
for white people or the white culture" -- a seat at the table of brotherhood that King memorialized in his speech.
Beck, for his part, posited that "far too many" people "have either gotten just lazy or they have purposely distorted Martin Luther King's ideas of 'judge a man by the content of his character.' Lately, in the last 20 years, we've been told that character doesn't matter. Well, if character doesn't matter, then what was Martin Luther King asking people to judge people by?"
But in Epps' view, to recall King's credo that people should not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character -- as Beck does -- is a distortion of the civil rights leader's message.
"I tell people to look back at the Montgomery bus boycott," says Epps, "and the demands of the Montgomery Improvement Association
. Their first demand was that segregating buses be stopped. But their second demand was that [they] wanted the bus company to commit that every new bus driver they hired was to be [a person of color] -- to have a proportion of the drivers match that of the population."
In other words, King himself was acutely aware of the politics of race, and Beck's invocation of his "creed, not color" message is an oversimplification of his legacy -- one that some would argue is being used for political expedience. Epps adds, "It is very common for powerful people to want to steal the history of the less powerful and sell it back to them."
While race relations in America have advanced by leaps and bounds since the days of Jim Crow -- Obama is prime evidence of just how far the country has come -- recent controversies like the one involving Shirley Sherrod
and its resulting backlash show that the subject of race in America still teeters on a knife's edge.
On Tuesday, the NAACP posted a letter from Sherrod
, who lost her job with Agriculture Department over a misunderstood video posted by a conservative activist, reaffirming her commitment to the rights organization
and blasting the Tea Party for its tactics. "I'm surely not going to yield because some Tea Party agitator sat at his computer and turned everything I said upside down and inside out," wrote Sherrod.
Whatever happens on Aug. 28, it's certain that Sherrod's message to "pull together and overcome racial divisions" will be put to the test.
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