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.

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.