King supported labor unions and affirmative action -- and he would have voted for Barack Obama.
It looks like Fox News' Glenn Beck has developed a man crush on the wrong black icon.
If he really wanted his audience to get in touch with a martyred '60s-era religious conservative who espoused a sort of anti-government, pro-Second Amendment platform, he should have planned this week's Restoring Honor rally for Malcolm X's birthday, not Saturday's anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, D.C.
King -- bridge builder that he was -- would have accepted an invitation to speak at Beck's "March on Washington." But the anticipated crowd, including headliner Sarah Palin, might have been just a tad disappointed when they found out that King was a progressive.
The D.C. gig is Part 2 of Beck's strategy "to reclaim the civil rights movement" for the far right. Part 1, presumably, was declaring that President Barack Obama has "a deep-seated hatred for white people." It won't tarnish King's legacy. After all, he's still the only non-president with a national holiday, and if they made three-dollar bills, his face might be on one.
But it's an insult to the intelligence of Beck's followers. While the Tea Party cohort expected to turn out for Beck is set on getting government hands off their Medicare, he's got them paying tribute to a guy who believed that the government had a central role in shaping society. On the way to Beck-a-palooza, they might want to brush up on King's actual views:
At the time of his assassination, King was in Memphis delivering his final "Mountaintop" speech in support of striking sanitation workers. Toward the end of his career, King branched out beyond traditional civil rights to his comprehensive view of economic justice, including organized labor. Today, King would have been for the "card check" law that unions want and Beck calls a "pyramid scheme."
King was a vocal critic of the Vietnam War, and would have opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although nowadays it's easier to find folks like Beck parroting Rep. Ron Paul's (R-TX) paleoconservative anti-war stance, in the run-up to the Iraq War most of the Beck demographic was cheering on the invasion and, ironically, leaving it up to the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV), a repentant segregationist, to stand in King's shoes on the eve of war to say: "We cannot convince the world of the necessity of this war for one simple reason. This is a war of choice."
More than any other quote, conservatives reach for King's lyrical yet nebulous "content of their character" refrain when arguing that King would have opposed affirmative action. But it's hard to figure out what part of these words they misunderstood:
It is true that laws cannot change internal prejudiced attitudes, but they can control the external effects of bad attitudes. While a law cannot make an employer have compassion for an employee, it can keep him from refusing to hire individuals because of the color of their skin. Laws do not change attitudes, but at least they control behavior. We need laws to change the habits of men while we wait on religion and education to change their hearts.
King's 1967 Poor People's Campaign was a direct appeal to increase federal assistance for those whom his lieutenant, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, described as "Americans who have not been given a fair share of America's wealth and opportunity." The campaign fizzled, but its outlook was a far cry from Tea Party Economics 101.
King wouldn't like Obama's foreign policy, but he would have supported healthcare reform -- not based on the president's case for "bending the cost curve," but because he'd see it as a moral obligation.
And it's pretty hard to imagine that King wouldn't have been first in line to vote for Obama in 2008, especially when you consider this:
Which doesn't mean that Beck can't admire King and denounce Obama at the same time. But being a King fan is sort of like being a Yankees fan or putting ketchup on your Freedom Fries. It's the apple-pie, all-American thing to do. Since Beck surely considers himself a red-blooded all-American, it's only natural that he'd be looking to King for inspiration. What's not quite clear is why he's trying to convince his conservative flock that King was one of them.
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.