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.
If you think this isn't enough—if you're holding out for an endorsement of carbon taxes or subsidized health insurance—you're looking at the rally the wrong way. This is how conservatives embrace progress. First they resist it. Then they lose to it. Then they assimilate it. They frame it as a fulfillment of longstanding values. They emphasize common threads between reformers and founders. They reinterpret the nation's origins to match the new ethos.
Christianity helps. Its message of repentance helps people admit their mistakes, inviting them to surrender to God rather than to their political enemies. But pride is still hard to swallow. Conservatives need a way to distinguish their apologies from the apologies of progressives. Hence their contrast between looking forward and "wallowing."
In the short term, such vague concessions can feel meaningless. And it's clear from Beck's record that he still has a lot of growing up to do. But watch the King tribute video that was played at the rally. There, in the background of an old photo, you can see signs that were carried in demonstrations against the civil rights movement. "Race Mixing is Communism," they warn. To anyone who has seen Beck's TV show, the rhetoric is familiar. He often caricatures President Obama and the new health care law as "socialist."
The resemblance doesn't mean that Beck wants to take us back to the days of segregation. It means the opposite. Crying "socialism" is what conservatives do before they yield to change. It's a stage in the process of defeat. But the process doesn't end with defeat. It ends with absorption. It ends with the political descendants of George Wallace embracing the legacy of Martin Luther King. Beck today is just catching up to where King was 50 years ago. That's because King was in the front of the civil rights bus, and Beck is in the back. And it's a really slow bus.
But it's moving forward. King, once spurned as a communist, is now canonized as a peer of the Founding Fathers. ("We haven't carved him in marble yet," said Beck, adding the "yet" as tribute and prediction.) And in Beck's closing speech, you can see where the bus is headed next. Four years ago, Beck, on live TV, told the country's first Muslim congressman: "What I feel like saying is, 'Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.' And I know you're not. I'm not accusing you of being an enemy, but that's the way I feel." On Saturday, however, Beck told his followers: "Our churches, our synagogues, our mosques—we must stand for the things that we know are true. … Go to your synagogues, your churches, your mosques—anyone that is not preaching hate and division, anyone that is not teaching to kill another man."
Fifty years from now, when conservatives gather on the National Mall, they'll be celebrating the integration of American Muslims. On the hologram projector, they'll show dimensionally enhanced video of an anti-mosque rally from the bad old days of 2010. Their tribute won't be insincere. It'll just be a little bit late. Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. William Saletan's latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: