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ROBINSON: Even Beck can't mar King's legacy

Eugene Robinson

Eugene Robinson

The majestic grounds of the Lincoln Memorial belong to all Americans — even to egomaniacal talk-show hosts who profit handsomely from stoking fear, resentment and anger. So let me state clearly that Glenn Beck has every right to hold his absurdly titled “Restoring Honor” rally on Saturday.

But the rest of us have every right to call the event what it is: an exercise in self-aggrandizement on a Napoleonic scale. I half-expect Beck to appear before the crowd in a bicorn hat, with one hand tucked into the front of his jacket.

That Beck is staging his all-about-me event at the very spot where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his immortal “I Have a Dream” speech — and on the 47th anniversary of that historic address — is obviously intended to be a provocation. There’s no need to feel provoked, however; the appropriate response is to ignore him. No puffed-up blabbermouth could ever diminish the importance of the 1963 March on Washington or the impact of King’s unforgettable words.

Lincoln and King will always have their places in American history. Beck’s 15 minutes of fame and influence are ticking by.

The most offensive thing about the rally is Beck’s in-your-face boast that the event will “reclaim the civil rights movement.” But this is just a bunch of nonsense — too incoherent to really offend. Beck makes the false assertion that the struggle for civil rights was about winning “equal justice,” not “social justice” — in other words, that there was no economic component to the movement. He claims that today’s liberals, through such initiatives as health care reform, are somehow “perverting” King’s dream.

But Beck’s version of history is flat-out wrong. The full name of the event at which King spoke 47 years ago was the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Among its organizers was labor leader A. Philip Randolph, the founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and a vice president of the AFL-CIO, who gave a speech describing the injustice of “a society in which 6 million black and white people are unemployed and millions more live in poverty.”

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., then an official of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was the youngest speaker at the march. “We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of, for hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here — for they have no money for their transportation, for they are receiving starvation wages,” he told the crowd. Referring to proposed civil rights legislation, Lewis said: “We need a bill that will provide for the homeless and starving people of this nation. We need a bill that will ensure the equality of a maid who earns five dollars a week in the home of a family whose total income is $100,000 a year.”

From the beginning, King’s activism and leadership were aimed at securing not just equal justice but equal opportunity as well. When he was assassinated in 1968, King was in the midst of a Poor People’s Campaign aimed at bettering the economic condition of all underprivileged Americans, regardless of race.

But why am I wasting my breath? Glenn Beck isn’t interested in history, and he certainly isn’t interested in the truth. He just likes to set off little rhetorical firebombs that grab attention — and boost the ratings for his television and radio shows.

Since Beck has called President Barack Obama a “racist” and accused him of having a “deep-seated hatred for white people,” it’s safe to assume that some people will attend today’s rally because of a sense of racial grievance and an urge for some kind of payback. But many will attend for other reasons, and they’re the ones I feel sorry for. As the growth of the tea party movement clearly demonstrates, millions of Americans feel alienated from their government, distressed about the economy and frightened of the future. Their concerns deserve to be heard. Instead, their anxieties are exploited by hucksters who see fear and anger as marketing tools.

Tonight, when the event is done, the Lincoln Memorial will still be the place where King gave one of the most memorable speeches of the 20th century. People who came to the rally in search of answers will still be looking. And Glenn Beck will still be a legend in his own mind.

Eugene Robinson is an associate editor and columnist for The Washington Post. E-mail him at eugenerobinson@washpost.com.