Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

A Brief Note on Glenn Beck’s Horrid Usurpation of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Legacy

I haven’t written on this because it has made me so angry.  But I cannot let it pass.  Saturday was the 47th anniversary of the Civil Rights movement’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  As the climax of that historic march, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” Speech. The real title was “Normalcy: Never Again!” and the “Dream” refrain was a spur of the moment riff–since King’s public speaking style was shaped by Black Church preaching, which is a dialogue in which preacher’s adapt due both to the leading of God’s Spirit and to feedback from the congregation.  Sadly most people known only a few words of the speech and dismiss Dr. King as “the Dreamer,” never seeing him as the nonviolent WARRIOR for justice, peace, and the Beloved Community that he was. (J. Edgar Hoover, the evil, paranoid, and very racist founding Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation did not describe King as “the most dangerous Negro in America” because he was a harmless dreamer.)  While this was not his most radical speech (I’d give that award either to his 1967 “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” or the sermon given the night before he was assassinated in 1968, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”), because so very few know the whole “Dream” speech, I am glad my friend Dan Trabue has reprinted it in full here.  I urge you to take your time and read it slowly and ponder it deeply–then go to Youtube and watch/listen to the speech given in Dr. King’s amazing delivery.

But Saturday the nation did not reflect on the March, the speech, and how far we still are from realizing the Dream.  Instead, tens of thousands of (mostly white) people poured into D.C. to attend a “Restore Honor” rally organized by former rodeo clown turned rightwing “news” pundit, Glenn Beck and hear speeches by him and Sarah Palin and others on how today white people are the only victims of racism, Pres. Barack Obama (of whom I am a critic from the Left–as Dr. King would be) is an evil tyrant who hates white people and free enterprise, how we need to have more wars in order to “restore honor” to the nation–and other pure bullshit! (I do not often use scatalogical language and I see this blog as a family-friendly forum, so I hesitate to use that term–but no other will do. The Apostle Paul counted his life before Christ as “all shit” (Phil. 3:8). ) Isaiah’s judgment on those who call evil “good” and good “evil” quickly comes to mind.

That anyone could see Glenn Beck as a contemporary standard bearer for the values of Dr. King shows how much King’s image has been “tamed” over the years.  Maybe it was a mistake to ever make his birthday into a national holiday.  Maybe it helped us forget the “dangerous Negro,” that the Dreamer was a radical democratic socialist who called his nation “the world’s largest purveyor of violence,” who wept over the funerals of 4 little girls killed at Sunday School by white terrorists and said “My dream has become a nightmare,” who called for a “revolution of values” in this nation, who spent the last year of his life organizing a Poor People’s Campaign of African Americans, whites from Appalachia, Native Americans, Mexican-American migrant workers, and others.  This man with a Ph.D. from Boston University was assassinated for marching for the rights of garbage workers in Memphis, TN.  We have too much tamed Martin King when Glenn Beck and his followers can see themselves as his legacy!!

And it enfuriates me that, 47 years later, most white pastors have still not read King’s writings–or the writings of any African-American theologian.  It should be IMPOSSIBLE to get a theological education in 2010 without wrestling with major non-white, non-Western figures.  But it is.  That’s the only way to explain how ignorant voices could portray Rev. Jeremiah Wright as a “hatemonger” based on snippets from one sermon or accuse James H. Cone, one of the founders of Black Liberation Theology, of “reverse racism” and hatred.

It should be impossible to graduate university or even high school without having to read major non-white voices alongside white and Western ones.  How can our children grow up without ever encountering Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Sojourner Truth, David Walker, Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. DuBois or Martin Luther King, alongside Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, and others?  Why is it that nearly every African-American (and Latino/a and Asian) pastor and theologian in this country knows the white, Western intellectual tradition, but so few whites bother to learn anything from others?  That unconscious racism, the “othering” by eliminating those voices from the conversation, is what allows rewriting of history and allows the ignorance displayed by the Glenn Beck usurpation.

Are there conservative African Americans? Sure.  Do Beck and others have the right to gather and make a case for their (individualistic, libertarian) view of society in which corporations can do no wrong, but any attempt at government work for the common good is denounced as “socialism?” Sure.  Do they have the right to try to convince Christians and others that “social justice” is a betrayal of the gospel? Sure.  But should anyone be taken in by their nonsense? No–and they can only be so taken in because of our failure to educate.  We reduce the Black Freedom movement to Rosa Parks sitting down one day and Martin King giving a speech the next day and think, “Poof! Segregation disappeared.” Our amnesia is leading to the resegregation of our schools. We rightly celebrate the first time a non-white person was elected president by a nation where whites are still the majority (although not by the middle of this century when we will have no majority ethnic group and whites will simply be the largest minority). But while Barack Obama gets to live in a White House built by slaves, we have a greater percentage  African Americans in prison than during the darkest days of segregation.  Dr. King would be more concerned about the latter–and Glenn Beck’s libertarian dream is not.

Al Sharpton had a counter-march on Saturday to “reclaim the dream.”  But to reclaim the dream of a non-racial society in which there are no poor people, which is characterized by justice and peace and in which people, not corporations, decide things, we have to first remember what the dream was.  I challenge white pastors and theologians and seminary students to do their part–by introducing themselves and their congregations to voices long ignored and silenced–including Martin King’s.


August 30, 2010 - Posted by | civil rights, History, justice, racial justice

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