We all know the cliché about the stages of social change: First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. As it turns out, there’s a next step: they try to take credit for you, and steal your legacy for their own ugly purposes. Or as Elliot’s Law puts it:
As an online discussion concerning race grows longer, the probability of a person referencing Martin Luther King, Jr. as a means to justify their racist and/or ignorant attitudes approaches one.Glenn Beck has announced that his next hating-on-liberals rally will be on August 28th, the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech. And yes, Beck has already informed his audience that he too has a dream.
I’ve been trying to track down a quote (I think it was Jonah Goldberg) from around the time of Rosa Parks’s death. The gist was that the civil rights movement shouldn’t be seen as a liberal victory, but as a victory for everyone, because the conservative ideal is a “color-blind society.” I can’t remember the precise wording because I banged my head on the keyboard while yelling:
“It was a liberal victory because conservatives were ON THE OTHER SIDE!”
When Dr. King led marches, conservatives were the ones blocking their way with fire hoses and police dogs. Conservatives were the ones ranting about how civil rights activists were “communists” and “socialists.” (Sound familiar?)
In 1957 Jonah Goldberg’s own magazine, The National Review, famously published an editorial, Why the South Must Prevail, explaining why it was OK to suppress the African-American vote even in areas where blacks outnumbered whites:
The central question that emerges-and it is notDoesn’t sound very “color-blind,” does it?
a parliamentary question or a question that is
answered by merely consulting a catalogue of the
rights of American citizens, born Equal-is whether
the White community in the South is entitled to take
such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically
and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate
numerically? The sobering answer is Yes
-the White community is so entitled because, for
the time being, it is the advanced race .
It’s hard for people of my generation and younger to imagine just how much conservatives hated Dr. King while he was alive. Take the right’s hatred for Cindy Sheehan, Al Sharpton, and Michael Moore, stuff all that rage into a teabag, throw it into a boiling cauldron of Fox News, and you could brew up a perfect pot of right-wing venom. Rick Perlstein notes that hating Dr. King was a conservative litmus test then, the way denying global warming is today.
South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond wrote his constituents, "[W]e are now witnessing the whirlwind sowed years ago when some preachers and teachers began telling people that each man could be his own judge in his own case." Another, even more prominent conservative said it was just the sort of "great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order, and people started choosing which laws they'd break."Fifteen years later, the political landscape had shifted. Reagan (now President) signed a law creating a holiday to honor Dr. King. Reagan had threatened to veto the bill, but it passed both houses of Congress with an overwhelming, veto-proof majority, so he signed it and pretended he’d been in favor all along:
That was Ronald Reagan, the governor of California, arguing that King had it coming.
Now our nation has decided to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., by setting aside a day each year to remember him and the just cause he stood for. We've made historic strides since Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus. As a democratic people, we can take pride in the knowledge that we Americans recognized a grave injustice and took action to correct it. And we should remember that in far too many countries, people like Dr. King never have the opportunity to speak out at all.Note Reagan’s use of “we” and “us,” as if he’d been standing side by side with Dr. King and Rosa Parks. During Dr. King’s life, Reagan decried him as a “Marxist.”
But traces of bigotry still mar America. So, each year on Martin Luther King Day, let us not only recall Dr. King, but rededicate ourselves to the Commandments he believed in and sought to live every day: Thou shall love thy God with all thy heart, and thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself. And I just have to believe that all of us -- if all of us, young and old, Republicans and Democrats, do all we can to live up to those Commandments, then we will see the day when Dr. King's dream comes true, and in his words, "All of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning, '. . . land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.'"
These days, conservatives love to quote Dr. King. More precisely, they love to quote one line from one speech:
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.The only purpose of quoting this, of course, is to “prove” that if Dr. King weren’t conveniently dead, he’d be opposed to affirmative action (which, as they’re happy to explain to us, is the only form of racism that still exists or matters). Just one problem: in his book Why We Can’t Wait, Dr. King explicitly wrote about affirmative action, and why he believed it was necessary:
Whenever this issue of compensatory or preferential treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree, but he should ask for nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic. For it is obvious that if a man enters the starting line of a race three hundred years after another man, the first would have to perform some incredible feat in order to catch up.Were he still alive, conservatives would be calling Dr. King a “race hustler” and worse. But his martyrdom, and the country’s eventual acceptance of the causes he championed, have rendered him untouchable. So now they’re trying to take credit for him.
Conservative co-optation is, ironically, a sign of how thoroughly Dr. King’s message has triumphed. The country has embraced racial equality as a worthy and righteous goal, even if we haven’t reached it yet. A generation ago, overt racism was socially acceptable. Now they’re reduced to dogwhistles. Rather than openly embrace their natural constituency – unrepentant 21st-century racists – teabaggers are loudly deny that their movement is racist, and insist that the guy photographed with the racist sign at their rally was a bad apple or a liberal plant...and the other guy a the other rally...and the woman at the other one...and...
Unable to beat liberals, conservatives now belatedly try to join us, pretending they admired Dr. King all along. Similarly, after decades of conservatives trashing feminism, they now have Sarah Palin and other right-wing women declaring themselves to be the real feminists. It’s both depressing and invigorating to realize that twenty years from now, I’m going to be slapping down lies from Jonah Goldberg as he tries to claim that conservatives were the ones who brought us same-sex marriage. By then, of course, Glenn Beck’s bizarre rantings will be a bit of trivia tossed around with Monty Python quotes in late-night blog discussions (or whatever’s replaced blogs by then).
And because I can’t resist stealing from Colbert, here’s a little tribute to Beck.