A disturbing magazine cover recently crossed my desk, announcing in big, bold print that Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and the NRA will be hosting a "Restoring Honor" rally in August. It's being held at the Lincoln Memorial, a place that honors America's most revered president — the one who saved our union, freed African slaves and breathed the healing balm "of malice toward none" at the conclusion of our bitter Civil War … and who was killed by a gun.
It's also being held on the 47th anniversary of the March on Washington — the march where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke so eloquently of his dream that one day his children would live in a nation where "they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." Where this same civil rights giant and pacifist who won the Nobel Peace Prize was joined on the podium — and in the 200,000-plus audience — by Americans of all races, backgrounds and religions; and where the transformative power of nonviolent protest and forgiveness traveled deeply into the racially scarred American consciousness, and prodded political leaders to pass laws that struck down decades of discriminatory practices that had relegated a group of people to the desert of second-class citizenship.
Now picture the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, on the anniversary of "I Have a Dream," with Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and the NRA's Wayne LaPierre at the podium, and our National Mall teeming with their followers to, in Beck's words, "pick up Martin Luther King's dream."
The man calling the date of his rally "divine providence" (as noted ironically by The Colbert Report) is the same Glenn Beck who is a life member of the NRA; who has insulted the Anti-Defamation League; who challenged Keith Ellison, a Muslim who had just been elected to Congress, to "prove to me you are not working with our enemies"; and who repeatedly called President Barack Obama "a racist" and accused him of having "a deep-seated hatred for white people." This same Beck recently urged Christians to leave their churches if their ministers ever spoke about "social justice" — the very foundation of King's leadership during the 1950s and 1960s — because he considers the term code for "communism and Nazism."
On the podium will be the same Sarah Palin who has purposely stoked fears and resentment among gun owners by wrongly accusing President Obama of wanting to ban guns; who disregards the 70 percent of Americans who want restrictions on semi-automatic assault weapons; and who rejects the medical community's assertion that gun violence in America is a national health problem.
There, too, will be Wayne LaPierre, who insists that "it's the guys with the guns who make the rules." Not Thomas Jefferson's "We, the people," the American voters or their representatives — no, "the guys with the guns," a statement that bears an eerie similarity to the one John Wilkes Booth authored in a letter on April 14, 1865, the morning before he assassinated Lincoln: that "might makes right."
It's the same LaPierre who just weeks ago debated me on PBS's News Hour and argued that laws such as those requiring criminal-background checks on all sales at gun shows are the equivalent of a "poll tax." Yes, you read that correctly: LaPierre equates laws restricting access to guns by dangerous people with a tax designed to keep African Americans from exercising their 15th Amendment right to vote, a tax that was ultimately consigned to the dustbin of history by the groundswell of support for the 24th Amendment, which became law on the heels of the 1963 March on Washington. Somehow, in LaPierre's mind, a proposal designed to slow the mind-numbing gun violence touching the lives of so many in this country equals the century-long disenfranchisement of former slaves and their descendants.
A large part of the audience likely will be those who identify themselves as members of the Tea Party, some of whom have, at past public events, openly carried guns and used tactics of intimidation; brandished racially offensive posters depicting President Obama; and shouted racial and anti-gay slurs at congressional leaders outside a rally allegedly held to protest health care legislation. One of the spokespersons for the Tea Partiers even wrote a facetious letter "from the Colored people" to Abraham Lincoln praising slavery, to challenge the NAACP's claims that the party harbors racist elements.
Most jarring is the sad irony of all these people at the podium, with their supporters spread across our National Mall, celebrating, in part, their worship of guns while invoking, quite blatantly, the legacies of two great Americans whose magnificent lives were cruelly cut short by bullets.
And as you hold that image in your mind, consider the words of Dr. King, who, while mourning with all Americans the loss of President John F. Kennedy to gun violence, suggested, "While the question 'Who killed President Kennedy?' is important, the question 'What killed him?' is more important. Our late President was assassinated by a morally inclement climate. It is a climate filled with heavy torrents of false accusation, jostling winds of hatred, and raging storms of violence. It is climate where men cannot disagree without being disagreeable, and where they express dissent through violence and murder."
Are Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Wayne LaPierre and Ted Nugent the new keepers of King's dream and of Lincoln's legacy? Or do they, with this event at this place and time, in one of the boldest and most public ways imaginable, mock and, indeed, slander everything for which these men so nobly stood, and for which they died?
Paul Helmke is president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the nation's largest nonpartisan grass-roots organization leading the fight to prevent gun violence. The Brady Campaign is devoted to creating an America free from gun violence, where all Americans are safe at home, at school, at work and in our communities.