Who Owns the Civil Rights Legacy?

With even Glenn Beck staking a claim, visions of what Martin Luther King Jr. stood for can be wildly divergent.


The last book by Martin Luther King Jr. raised the question, "Where do we go from here: chaos or community?" From competing interpretations of that question, the answer currently appears to be: both. Those groups purporting to have some affinity for the message that King delivered at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 do not seem to know what they have in common, even as they rip at each other in the political arena while claiming to be above politics. They wrap themselves in the cloak of Jesus, but their right hand doesn't seem to be in touch with their left. While President Obama is special to both sides, for one, Obama is the symbol of pure evil; for the other, Obama is the apotheosis of King's dream.

Glenn Beck, the conservative Fox News commentator and Tea Party movement leader, depicts himself as a kind of St. Paul, spreading the Jesus (and now King) messages of love and honor (though not opposition to war) as a way to reclaim both the American Dream and the civil rights movement. At the same time, he denounces some of the core aspects of that movement and excludes many from that dream.

Al Sharpton, founder of the National Action Network, a kind of second-generation spinoff of King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference, has vowed to "reclaim the dream" that King shared with the world 47 years ago. Like Beck, he picks what is convenient, focusing most often on the indictment of the government than on the content-of-character and love-thy-neighbor aspects.

King had dreams and he had nightmares; it would behoove us to consider both. Back in those days, the most prominent obstructionists to black civil rights were white-supremacist Democrats. After President Lyndon Johnson muscled through the 1964 Civil Rights Act and other Great Society legislation, many of those white folks became the Republicans of whom we see too much today. And yet Beck would have us believe that there has been a straight path from Lincoln's Republican Party to today's.

This point should be obvious: No one is the owner of the patent, the inheritor of the mantle, the official interpreter. Just beholding those assembled within a short distance of each other in Washington on Aug. 28 was a stark reminder that Beck and Sharpton both -- at least on that day -- seemed monochromatic in their appeal while trying to sell us on the notion that each of them represented King and the civil rights movement he came to lead. Beck, because of his media appeal and the presence of Sarah Palin, had white evangelicals; Sharpton had the heads of black civil rights and civic organizations standing with him, though it was clear that, because of his own media appeal, this was his show from start to finish.

Other than Mahalia Jackson singing, the most prominent woman present was Dorothy Height, who said not a word but stood resplendent and formidable near King as head of the National Council of Negro Women. Gays were not obviously present, though the chief of staff of the march, Bayard Rustin, was openly gay. He stayed in the wings so as not to provide movement enemies with more ammunition. Labor unions were on display.

White people, especially Jews and college students, were also prominent and figured mightily in King's dream that "we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children -- black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Catholics and Protestants -- will be able to join hands and to sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last, free at last; thank God Almighty, we are free at last'." (See the late James Melvin Washington's compilation of King's words, A Testament of Hope, Harper & Row, 1986.)

Neither Beck nor Sharpton had such a breadth of participation, though one expected more from Beck, who for months has been telling those who abide him -- on television, on radio and via other media -- that he represents the 21st-century version of civil rights leadership. He hews to King's line about content of character trumping color of skin while conveniently ignoring -- if he's ever viewed the entire speech -- King's indictment of the federal government for the plight of blacks that had little changed since the end of the Civil War, including withering injustice, poverty, joblessness, marginalization and lack of voting rights. Moreover, King said, the government had not honored a promissory note that began with the Declaration of Independence's assertion that all of us are created equal. He warned the government against a "return to business as usual." A "symphony of brotherhood" could not exist without the government addressing these issues. More government involvement, not less.

What Is the Agenda Now?

The civil rights agenda in 2010 is not nearly so clear as it was in 1963. On the traditional civil rights side, issues range from quality public school education to jobs to immigration rights to criminal justice reform to gay marriage to statehood for Washington, D.C. Those concerned with these issues are clearly in the Obama camp; the Beck supporters are not, seeing the president as a Marxist, Muslim, "Manchurian Candidate" type of president out to destroy the U.S. on behalf of nebulous and nefarious powers. Less government, not more. Christian government, not agnostic.