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.
This is Beck's take on what "the movement" is all about: "This is the moment, quite honestly, that I think we reclaim the civil rights movement. We are on the right side of history. We are on the side of individual freedoms and liberties and, damn it, we will reclaim the civil rights moment. We will take that movement because we are the people that did it in the first place." I'm not sure who "the people" are or what it is they did "in the first place."
Before his overwhelmingly white gathering, blacks were featured as singers and prayer deliverers, and -- rather shamelessly -- a niece of King delivered her own "I Have a Dream" speech, mixing her uncle's cadences and various scriptural references.
The term civil rights is not exclusively about black folks. It refers to rights guaranteed in the original 1787 Constitution that were enhanced by the Bill of Rights. Later, other amendments further interpreted those rights, as did statutes and judicial rulings. Blacks had fought for enforcement of their civil rights since the earliest days, but in the modern era they began to coalesce after World War II. King was a reluctant soldier in the movement -- drafted in Montgomery in 1955 to challenge a segregated local public transportation system -- who went on to become a general in a national struggle, recognized worldwide.
Sadly, the closest the Sharpton supporters and the Beck supporters have come is not Martin Luther King III, clearly in the Sharpton camp, but his first cousin, Alveda King, probably the most prominent black person (by virtue of her kinship with Dr. King and her opposition to abortion and gay marriage) to take part in Beck's rally while also keeping open her line of communication with Sharpton.
I have a dream that Dr. King's message will stop being a football in a cynical contest. His message belongs to all who heed it rather than a CliffsNotes version of it. Civil rights should be a primary concern of all of us -- not out of altruism, but out of self-interest.
E.R. Shipp is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and frequent contributor to The Root.