A Tale of Two Events: The 1963 March on Washington and Glen Beck’s “Restoring Honor” Rally
Dr Mark Naison
The 1963 March on Washington changed my life. As a 17 year old college athlete moved by the Civil Rights struggle, but unsure how to get involved, the sight of two hundred fifty thousand Blacks and whites peacefully gathering together in the Nation’s capital to demand passage of a Civil Rights bill made me feel that something profound and significant was happening in the country that demanded my participation. And when I heard Dr King’s speech offering a vision of justice in which people of all racial and religious backgrounds could play a part, I felt he was speaking directly to me. As soon as I got back to school, I joined the campus chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality and volunteered to do tutoring and tenant organizing. The rest is history. Forty seven years later, I am a Professor of African American Studies and History at Fordham University, whose life has been profoundly enriched by participation in social justice struggles, the study of African American history, and the building of deep friendships that cross lines of race, religion, nationality and sexual orientation.
Given this history, it was both shocking and upsetting to see Glen Beck use the very same setting, and the very same date, to mount all-white protest against the policies of the Obama Administration and promulgate a vision of religious faith that negates everything that Dr King stood for during his extraordinary life. That Beck could speak of “reclaiming the civil rights movement” in one sentence and denounce any form of religious faith that promoted redistribution of wealth, in another shows either his total cynicism, or his complete lack of familiarity with Dr King’s speeches and writings. Dr King, the theologian, was not just concerned with assuring individual rights for all, regardless of race creed or color, he was preoccupied with understanding how imbalances in wealth and power, deformed societies and created a climate where violence would thrive. One of his greatest speeches, his” Declaration of Independence from the War In Vietnam” was all about how the US “ was on the wrong side of a world revolution,” and how the pursuit of profits and he defense of vast imbalances in wealth was responsible for violence at home and abroad.
Dr Martin Luther King, though a man of peace, was a social revolutionary who believed that the health of societies was enhanced by the pursuit of equality. No where was that more true than his speech at the March on Washington. As I listened to that speech, I was overwhelmed by a sense not only that America could only be true to its ideals if Black people were given equal rights, but that each of us would be ultimately judged by how well our actions served those less fortunate than themselves. A nation, like a family, Dr King argued powerfully, could only truly achieve well being if all of its members were healthy and cared for, and he spoke of healing the wounds of racism and poverty as a sacred task that would not only ennoble everyone associated with it, but would greatly enhance America’s standing among the nations of the world.
Dr King’s genius was his ability to make people feel that devoting their lives to helping others immeasurably enriched their experience of living, while making the nation they lived in stronger and more respected. That someone could use his words and example to promote institutionalized selfishness as both Christian and patriotic is not only to distort his legacy, it is to defile it!
September 30, 2010