It's Good To Be King
Don't ridicule Glenn Beck's tribute to MLK. Celebrate it.
Saturday, on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 March on Washington, Glenn Beck held a conservative rally on the National Mall. Civil rights activists called it a fraud. "He's mimicking Dr. King, in some sense humiliating the tradition,"scoffed Jesse Jackson. Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, declared, "We will not stand silent as some seek to hijack, as some seek to distort and contort, as some seek to bamboozle and confuse the vision of Dr. King's dream."
Relax. Nobody's going to mistake the Tea Party for the civil rights movement. And there's nothing unseemly about the right's embrace of King. This is America at its best: A man once disowned as a partisan and a rebel now belongs to all of us.
Beck and the other speakers at Saturday's rally don't share King's views about states' rights or the role of government. But their invocations of his legacy were sustained and serious. They affirmed his central message—equality—and grouped him with the country's Founding Fathers. The rally's first featured speaker, Sarah Palin, praised "Washington and Lincoln and Martin Luther King." Beck urged his followers "to reflect on what these great men did." The crowd applauded at length when King's work and teachings were mentioned.
The rally did construe King as a champion of conservative ideals, but not in a farfetched way. Palin told the crowd that King, "two score and seven years ago, gave voice to a dream that would challenge us to honor the sacred charters of our liberty." On this view, King wasn't defying tradition; he was calling us back to it. One video played at the rally emphasized the "faith" King shared with the country's founders. Another stressed their common convictions: "Just like the founding fathers before him, King knew that the fight for freedom was not easy." It exalted King as an American loyalist: "His dream is the American dream."
Did these portrayals whitewash the sins against which King campaigned? No. In fact, the rally was full of apologies. "It was you, Lord God, who called us to account when we broke the treaties with the first peoples," the Rev. Paul Jehle confessed in the opening prayer. "You called us to repentance. And you, O God, called us to repentance when we did not live up to our creed, and we did not treat everyone as equal." Palin followed Jehle to the podium, calling slavery "our greatest shame." Beck told the crowd, "Let's be honest: If you look at history, America has been both terribly good and terribly bad." He conceded: "Countries make mistakes. We have made more than our fair share." A video reviewed the ugly era of segregation and concluded that King "awoke our nation's collective consciousness." Awoke our consciousness! That's a line straight out of the 1960s.
In exchange for their candor, the speakers put a positive, pro-American spin on the errors of the past. Beck lamented our tendency to "concentrate on the bad instead of learning from the bad and repairing the bad and then looking to the good that is still out in front of us." He urged his followers to "choose whether we wallow in our scars" or "learn from the past and ask for redemption."
Slate V: Coverage of Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally
The rally organizers didn't pretend that all our sins were behind us. "We as citizens must all carry Martin Luther King's dream in all of our hearts today," said the rally video. "The dream is not completed. It's an ongoing struggle, one that all Americans should always be willing to undertake." Borrowing a favorite progressive buzzword, the video affirmed King's recognition in 1963 that "this was the day to inspire change." And it noted with approval that when King "was told to be patient, he said, 'I have too little time.' "
Consciousness, shame, redemption, change, impatience. These are more than concessions. They're ways of thinking and living. They're the core of the progressive worldview.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Photographs of: Glenn Beck by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images; Martin Luther King Jr. by AFP/AFP/Getty Images.