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.