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Beck, King and nonviolence

Guest Blogger

It’s not exactly a memorable anniversary year – not the 25th, or 50th, or 75th year since Martin Luther King’s memorable “I Have a Dream Speech.” It’s the 47th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington on Saturday, and this one may become memorable because in this highly charged election year, the day is being claimed from opposite sides of the political spectrum. Charles Euchner has chronicled the actual day more than 40 years ago (and less than 50) in “Nobody Turn Me Around: A People’s History of the 1963 March on Washington,” released this month by Beacon Press. Here, Euchner, who teaches writing at Yale University and is the author of eight books, reflects on the competing commemorations taking place in Washington this weekend.

By Charles Euchner

On the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington -- “the greatest demonstration for freedom in our nation’s history,” in Martin Luther King’s words -- a coalition of conservative groups, including the Tea Party, and the Rev. Al Sharpton plan dueling rallies.

Glenn Beck, the conservative radio talk show host who has called President Barack Obama racist and compared Al Gore to Nazis, says he plans to unveil a “100-year plan” to “reclaim” America. He will be joined by former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and, presumably, at least 100,000 demonstrators on the National Mall where King delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” oration 47 years ago.

Sharpton, no stranger to controversy since his involvement in the Tawana Brawley fiasco in 1987, plans to lead a march from Washington’s historic Dunbar High School to the site of a planned King memorial on the mall. Sharpton says he wants no confrontations with the Tea Party, only to honor King’s legacy. The NAACP and 200 other civil rights organizations, meanwhile, have planned a major rally for October 2 to “celebrate the dream.”

Mass demonstrations have played a powerful role in American history -- from the Boston Tea Party and Shay’s Rebellion to rallies for labor rights and women’s suffrage to modern civil rights, peace, women’s rights demonstrations.

But for every march with impact, hundreds or even thousands of marches fall flat or, worse, tear communities apart.

The 1963 March on Washington succeeded -- not only improving prospects for landmark civil rights legislation, but also changing mainstream America’s appreciation of blacks --because its leaders focused on the universal values of fairness, nonviolence, and respect for friends and foes alike.

Philip Randolph, the aging labor leader, originally called the march to demand jobs and training for blacks. Blacks suffered high unemployment rates, low wages, and the loss of jobs from technology. But to get King and other mainstream civil rights leaders to join, the focus shifted to civil rights issues like public accommodations, voting rights, and protection from police and mob violence.

When President John F. Kennedy announced landmark civil rights legislation on June 11, the march became a massive push to get Congress to pass the bill.

The march took place at a time -- like today -- of incendiary rhetoric, unrest and violence, and corrosive cynicism about government’s potential to do the right thing. Extremists on both right and left rejected King’s call for nonviolence and integration. Police and march organizers feared violence, for good reason. Death threats and bomb scares were an everyday reality. The American Nazi Party planned a counter-rally with 10,000 followers, and its leader said he “would love to see” celebrity supporters of civil rights “trampled by their coon friends.”

On that long-ago August afternoon, order prevailed. Americans watching live TV coverage -- the first time anyone ever saw the movement gather together -- witnessed a joyous but determined crowd. One commentator likened it to a church picnic, but it was more than that. With their numbers, marchers presented a “living petition.” Marchers served notice, in King’s words, that they “can never be satisfied” until gaining their full rights as citizens.

But marchers knew they had to avoid responding to violence with violence -- or even returning the vitriol of their foes. When they were attacked or slandered, they were taught to turn away. Only by focusing on higher values -- universal values -- could they succeed.

Speakers and performers were not above attacking segregationists. In “When the Ship Comes In,” Bob Dylan warned enemies of retribution. John Lewis vowed to “splinter the South into a thousand pieces” if the ruling elite did not grant civil rights. King inveighed against “vicious racists.”

But the ’63 marchers reached out to even bitter foes. They vowed to create a new world of fairness that would enhance everyone, black and white. Speaking to southern Democrats who opposed the civil rights bill, the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins called out: “Give us a little time and we’ll emancipate you!”

The day’s high point came with King. Every school child today knows his evocation of a dream, which blacks and whites would “join hands” and “sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”

Missing from that dream is rancor or bitterness. King tells us that he want to join whites, not defeat them. He wants to emancipate foes, not conquer them. He wants to gain the same rights, not demand special privilege.

But he goes further, in the most important moment of the day.

“I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations,” he says. “Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality.”

To all who took beatings and other abuse, who lost jobs and homes, who bore the brunt of corrupt police and mob rule, King offered not so much outrage as hope for all.

“Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive,” he said.

Those four words -- unearned suffering is redemptive -- define the movement. King and his followers knew that change cannot come cheaply, that oppressors do not yield power voluntarily. To gain rights, the activists would have to suffer and sometimes even die -- and they must do so with love and without complaint.

King could ask his followers to stay peaceful, suffer without attacking their adversaries, because he was calling them to a higher plane. Unlike so many modern protesters -- who reject compromise or sacrifice, demand more benefits and lower taxes, and play the victim rather than accepting responsibility -- King and his followers embraced suffering for a higher cause.

As Glenn Beck, Al Sharpton, and others gather on the National Mall on August 28, they would profit by dwelling on King’s message of redemption. Rather than attacking opponents and demanding benefits, they might consider how all Americans can come together once again.

Followers of King might not want to give Glenn Beck a break. And suspicious conservatives might rather think the worst of Al Sharpton. But King’s lesson is simple and clear. Every moment offers an opportunity for redemption and overcoming the past.

By Steven E. Levingston  |  August 27, 2010; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags: beck and march on washington; sharpton and march on washington; king and march on washington; anniversary of march on washington; anniversary of 'I Have a Dream' speech;  
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Glenn Beck can have his silly rally. No one cares except for the few thousand people that will show up.

Actually, half of them will be geriatrics bussed there by Free-Dumb Works, and probably won't even be fully lucid, so make that a couple thousand.

Beck is nothing more than a narcissistic televangelist xenophobe ala Charles Coughlin. Our country has seen many of these raving lunatics since the beggining of the twentieth century, all chanting a mantra of "socialist conspiracy". If anyone really thinks that Beck is a trail-blazer in this genre of "thought", I encourage you to read a bit of history;

Anyway, like I said, let him have his silly rally. In twenty years, no one will remember it or him, unless they are unfortunate enough to draw a question with his name in it after landing on the "TV" sqaure of Trivial Pursuit.

Posted by: Gates9 | August 27, 2010 10:43 AM | Report abuse

The tea party is changed its color from wearing white sheets over their head to cover their true identity to exposing themselves. We live in a liberal society, in no other country can people depict the presidents face and call him names and live to see another day of freedom. For all those who think the president is a socialist do not know the meaning of a socialist society is and like Glen Beck who speaks out of a hole where scat should be coming out off is no patriot. To me a true patriot is someone who serves in uniform or servers for greater good for their country. Beck as done either like most in who talk the talk have never walked the walk. A majority of the Tea Party people are white racist, that is right I said it, they have just changed their strips and in this economic their party has picked up steam. You have to ask the question if the president was a white democrat would they speak of him like they have. It is shameful that we are taking so many steps backwards after such great progress we have made in the past, unless we have another bloodbath due to racism the issue will always be there, it is not black, it will be Asians or Middle Eastern, it will the Jews, where does this all stop, have we become a nation of racists in the country I love so much.

Posted by: sidearmkills | August 27, 2010 11:29 AM | Report abuse

Progressives are desperate to get Beck off the air in any way they can. They are getting so desperate, in fact, that a former Air America editor, current Los Angeles Times reporter and blogger in the President’s news source of choice: The Huffington Post, has resorted to offering $100,000 for a Glenn Beck sex tape or 'anything' that will get him off the air. These are the real Liberal values America has grown to hate.

Posted by: 2012frank | August 31, 2010 9:22 AM | Report abuse

Progressives are desperate to get Beck off the air in any way they can. They are getting so desperate, in fact, that a former Air America editor, current Los Angeles Times reporter and blogger in the President’s news source of choice: The Huffington Post, has resorted to offering $100,000 for a Glenn Beck sex tape or 'anything' that will get him off the air. These are the real Liberal values America has grown to hate.

Posted by: 2012frank | August 31, 2010 9:22 AM | Report abuse

MLK was a great man and leader of his people onone should questian that ever.Mr. Beck will be a great man and mabey a(saint) in the near fut. He is poised to be as great as Mr.King yes he has a little sharper toung than King but we live in sharper times than King did things are more hidden and back door creaps than in Kings time. As for Beck if he loves God belives Jesus died on the cross and was raised from the dead and can feel the Holly Ghost on him and in his sole he can be anything he wants to be. I do not know much about the morman life style but if they all sound like Beck then you tell me whats wrong with that.If you have not gone to utube and found the video called we the people please do so it will make your day.

Posted by: br5491 | September 2, 2010 10:14 AM | Report abuse

You are joking, right? You are taking this unstable, off balanced, greedy mentally ill
man as a real leader?

Post you are on the edge of non objective, non factual journalism.

You really can't fix crazy nor can you make it a real leader by writing about it....

Posted by: lindarc | September 2, 2010 12:08 PM | Report abuse

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