When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made his famous “I have a Dream” speech 47 years ago, he did it before a large and diverse audience full of both white and black faces, all united behind the cause of racial equality and equal opportunity for all Americans just because they were Americans, regardless of political, ethnic or social divisions. Today, while watching C-SPAN I saw the descendants of those who witnessed and even participated in King’s march on Washington gather in two largely segregated groups in an ironic segregation of the failure of King’s vision for our nation.
At the south end of the national mall, in the location where King spoke, there gathered a huge audience which was mostly white and middle and working class. They were enraged and driven to activism by the realization that the dream which Dr. King wanted white America to share with black America was now being taken away from both groups. At the call of a confused and clownlike fanatic with more media access than good sense, they came together to fumble for a shared expression of the powerlessness and frustration they feel when faced with a government running out of control and a nation wrecked on the shoals of greed and institutionalized corruption. There was far too much talk of God and Honor and other abstractions and too little talk about real solutions to the nation’s problems.
Not far away, at historic Dunbar High School, there were no good solutions to be found either. Before a small and unenthusiastic crowd which was uniformly dark skinned and had been bussed in by the SEIU, the AFT and the NEA, speaker after speaker repeated unionist slogans and socialist rhetoric with lukewarm response from the audience who had apparently been paid to show up but not to applaud. Unlike Dr. King’s spontaneous gathering of the people, this was a contrived event funded and manufactured by powerful special interest groups who have seized control of the government and promote an inhumane and exploitative ideology.
The contrast between the two rallies was striking.
Beck’s “Restoring Honor” event was enormous, far beyond anything I would have expected. Estimates of the crowd size place it well over 500,000 people, more than double the turnout for King’s original rally. In comparison Reverend Al Sharpton’s “Reclaim the Dream” event had a small and unenthusiastic turnout which may have barely topped 10,000, though comments from the podium suggested that the unions were still bussing in participants even as the original crowd was losing interest and wandering away during Sharpton’s speech.
The Beck event was largely apolitical. In fact, I found it troubling how heavily religious it was, with extensive references to Mormon symbolism and creepy religious figures spending time talking about moral values and vaguely threatening references to rechristianizing America. The most political speech came from former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, but most of the speakers were pushing a religious message, including some black preachers who had marched with King and his neice Alveda King. The union-sponsored event was quite different. Everything was political and the preachers who appeared were among the most radical of the speakers. It was all about blaming Bush and asserting political dominance for unions and activist groups.
At the Lincoln Memorial Beck’s followers were dressed normally and mostly not carrying signs. They were hot but enthusiastic and engaged, though I can’t figure out how most of them could see or hear anything at all given the size of the crowd. Much of the crowd at Dunbar High School showed up in uniform, wearing SEIU provided t-shirts and obediently participating in displays of support, but seeming quite disengaged from the speakers, some of whom became quite frustrated at the lack of response from the crowd.
Frankly, the Beck rally bored the hell out of me. Aside from a creepy bit at the beginning with some blatant token Jews and Native Americans and a bizarre preacher who seemed to e some sort of dualistic or pantheistic heretic with a speech impediment, the only part which kept my attention was Palin’s speech. I wanted more politics and less moralizing. Too much flag-waving and religiosity and a lack of content left me uninterested.
The “Reclaim the Dream” rally kept me riveted because of the obvious anger, hate and frustration on display. It was like looking at the moment where a populist movement achieves victory and begins the transition to despotism and oppression. All they needed was Hugo Chavez on the stage, or maybe not since several of their speakers did a fair but unintentional impression of him.
The rhetoric of revolution sounds like the rhetoric of tyranny when it comes from those who already have power and who are the new establishment. When Marc Morial of the National Urban League talks about poverty it’s impossible to take him seriously when you know he makes $657,000 a year and has a 7 figure benefits package. It’s hard to stick it to “The Man” when times have changed and you are “The Man.”
Perhaps the most ominous moment was when a Gregory Floyd of Teamsters Local 237 in New York City said that “We stand in solidarity with this social movement. Labor and this social movement, this civil rights movement, are one and the same.” Words with terrifying implications from the spokesman of an organization which is notorious for denying workers their right of free choice and free association in the workplace.
Surprisingly, the strongest expressions of ugliness and hate from either event came from a hispanic speaker. Jamie Contreras of the SEIU called Beck’s rally a “shame” and announced that it represented “hatemongering and angry white people.”
Al Sharpton was not far behind, announcing that “they want to disgrace this day. And we’re not giving them this day. This is our day and we ain’t giving it away.” But it’s not and Dr. King would not agree. His message was for everyone and no one, regardless of skin color or political ideology can claim it exclusively for themselves.
47 years seems like a very short time for Dr. King’s dream to have soured and become so misunderstood. When the exploitative labor leaders and hatemongering activists stood up at Dunbar High School and declared that they wanted to “Reclaim the Dream” the sad truth was readily apparent that their goal was to take a dream which was meant for all people and deny it to some while perverting its intent to their own advantage.
If they really believed in Dr. King’s dream they would have been at the Lincoln Memorial with Glenn Beck, demanding an equal voice and speaking to an audience which their presence would have made truly representative of the dream which both groups professed so stridently and unconvincingly to believe in and which neither was really doing anything to advance.