Glenn Beck’s MLK Dream is Perverse, But What's Our Vision?
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The event's actual name was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom . That moniker was a compromise between King, who wanted a more focused event, and Randolph, who helped broker the broad constituency that made the march the largest peacetime gathering in the nation's history at the time. King's iconic speech reflected the event's dual focus on economic and political justice -- and it included much, much more than a call to judge people by their character.
King began the speech by harking back to the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation as a "great beacon of light." But he quickly pivoted to the ways in which that light had dimmed. "One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity," King declared. "We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one," he later added.
He talked about change-making in starkly radical terms, explicitly rejecting the purported pragmatism we're now urged to accept on everything from immigration to jobs to health care. "This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism," he insisted. Before he got around to kids holding hands and singing about freedom, King talked about the "whirlwinds of revolt" that would make that moment possible, about the need to "shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges."
Indeed, even when King finally arrived at his dream moment of childlike racial harmony, he set it up as the counter to cynical Southern politicians who refused to obey federal laws. "I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor's lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and little white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers."
Swap Arizona for Alabama and the refrain still works today.
But such language would likely get a racial justice leader catcalled out of Washington today. It'd be considered too divisive, too combative. It certainly wouldn't poll well. No, King's actual dream would likely render him the target of dismissive White House snark about unrealistic lefties.
Which is perhaps the lesson to take from these past 12 months of watching Glenn Beck, Andrew Breitbart and the Tea Party dominate the air waves -- and set the boundaries for what's politically reasonable on everything from immigration reform to job creation. If Beck's the loudest national voice talking about King's dream, he'll be the one who defines how we make it manifest.
Kai is the Editorial Director of ColorLines. He’s an Alfred Knobler Fellow of The Nation Institute; his investigative reporting and news analysis appears regularly in The Nation , The Root and The American Prospect , among other publications.