Sunday, August 29, 2010

Glenn Beck: The ideological inheritor of the civil rights movement?

The (in)famous Glenn Beck led a rally yesterday at the National Mall on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial under the name of “Restoring Honor” along with Sarah Palin, among other guests, and it just so happened that the date of this rally happened to be the anniversary of the 1963 “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” at which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave one of the most well known and oft-quoted “I have a Dream” speech. Beck has claimed that the date shared by the two events is simply a coincidence however this hasn't stopped him from claiming that his rally is a continuation of the ideals and intentions for which the civil rights marchers fought and of which Dr. King spoke on that day forty-seven years ago. He claims that the civil rights movement has been hijacked by radicals away from the ideals of its progenitors and that Beck and other conservatives are reclaiming it and restoring it to its original intent.

It doesn't take a historian to figure out that Beck is full of it but the large gathering of people at the event (conservative estimates put the attendance at around 200,000 while the event organizers themselves give a number of 500,000) and the rhetoric used by both those supporting and opposed to yesterday's march have me convinced that the 1963 march on Washington and the civil rights movement itself are not widely understood by the American public today. This poses a serious problem for the future of this nation, as if we do not correctly understand what the civil rights struggle was about we cannot understand how successful it was in obtaining its goals. Our praise of Dr. King and the other civil rights leaders become hollow and devoid of meaning without understanding their intentions or the ways in which they wanted their ideals to be fulfilled.

One thing that really gets to me is the way in which the civil rights movement has been packaged into a nice neat little bundle that is easy to swallow and completely lacking in controversy. It has become a snippet of Dr. King's speech in which children are taught that the civil rights movement was about people not being, “judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” This alternate history that nearly every student across the United States learns today discounts the radical nature of the civil rights movement and even Dr. King himself, turning them into bland and uninteresting caricatures. The truth is that these people were radicals, they were fighting for radical ideals, and many of those ideals that they fought for are still considered radical by today's standards. The twisted history that is taught today says that these men and women were moderate voices, that the radicals were organizations such as SNCC and the Black Panther Party, yet when one looks at the facts nothing can be further from the truth. I can guarantee that Dr. King and Beck would not have seen eye to eye on much of anything if they were to meet, Beck would call King a radical, a socialist and a man too dangerous to “American ideals” to follow.

Part of the goals of the civil rights movement was certainly what is talked about today, in ending the racial violence that ruled this country for nearly its entire existence, in ending segregation, and in putting an end to the rule of Jim Crow across the South. But this was not the entirety of the movement, only a small portion of it. Look at the signs from the 1963 march. Look at the name of the march itself. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. One of the largest goals of King and his colleagues was to end poverty, not only for those of his own race but for all. King said on that day, speaking about the legacy of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, “One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.” King was partially speaking of segregation, but also speaking of the economic conditions of black Americans throughout the nation, a situation that has remained difficult for black Americans today. King did not want a "color-blind" society as most Americans seem to believe, he wanted instead an equitable America. With African American college graduates twice as likely to be out of work as white college graduates, if King had lived he would come to the conclusion that government needs to play a bigger role in solving this inequality that continues today, not a smaller role as suggested by Beck or any of the other conservative (and many liberal) voices out there. In marching to end poverty on this and many other occasions King wasn't suggesting tax cuts for the wealthy and wasn't suggesting that the government played too large a roll in people's economic activities. At the rally yesterday Sarah Palin said, “We must not fundamentally transform America as some would want; we must restore America and restore her honor.” The civil rights movement was a movement intended for exactly the opposite, to transform America and to bring the nation into honor and out of the horror that it had been for millions of people throughout its history. The honor that Palin and Beck wish to restore was not seen as honor to those in the civil rights movement, it was seen as oppression and a system which was stacked against them.

The terrifying thing to me is that Glenn Beck's interpretation of history isn't a new or extreme interpretation, it is the way that many Americans see the civil rights movement, both on the left and the right of the American political spectrum, and the way in which many students across the nation are taught about this part of our history. They see the implementation of “color-blind” legislation as a laudable goal that continues the success of the civil rights movement and has created a post-racial America, in which racism is no longer a major problem for our society. An America in which cab drivers are under the threat of being stabbed for being Muslim, in which black and Latino drivers are far more likely than whites to be searched at a traffic stop while whites are far more likely to be guilty when searched, in which African Americans are far more likely to be unemployed and looking for work, and in which African American women are even discriminated against in the dating world; this is not a post-racial America. The concept of “color-blindness” only benefits those who have nothing to worry about in regards to the color of their skin. For those who have been, and continue to be, discriminated against systemically, this color-blindness will only make their struggle invisible rather than ignored as it is now.

Let's not kid ourselves, the civil rights movement has not achieved its goals and Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin are not attempting to achieve civil rights for anyone.

No comments:

Post a Comment