On the misuse of legacy: The Struggle for the People’s King

On the misuse of legacy: The Struggle for the People’s King

By Hajar Yazdiha

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This is an adapted excerpt from The Struggle for the People’s King: How Politics Transforms the Memory of the Civil Rights Movement

On a humid day in late August 2010, the right-wing Tea Party activist and Fox News television host Glenn Beck held a rally to “Restore Honor” at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It was the 47th anniversary of the Civil Rights March on Washington, and Beck stood on the steps where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech nearly five decades prior. In the months leading up to the rally, Beck used his television show to drive home the undeniable connection between the historic backdrop of the rally and the Tea Party’s mission to safeguard American values, threatened by minority claims to “special rights.” In this view, white Americans were the new victims under the Obama presidency, an idea Beck repeatedly espoused as when he warned viewers, “This president [Obama] I think has exposed himself as a guy, over and over and over again, who has a deep-seated hatred for white people and the white culture…this guy is, I believe, a racist.”[i]

Earlier that spring Beck had proclaimed to his viewers, “We are the people of the Civil Rights Movement. We are the ones that must stand for civil and equal rights. Equal rights. Justice. Equal justice. Not special justice, not social justice, but equal justice. We are the inheritors and the protectors of the Civil Rights Movement.”[ii] Several days later, Beck warned viewers that King’s vision had been “perverted,” but he assured his audience that he planned to “pick up Martin Luther King’s dream” and to “restore it and to finish it.” He went on to declare, “We are on the right side of history. We are on the side of individual freedoms and liberties and damn it, we will reclaim the Civil Rights Movement. We will take that movement because we were the people that did it in the first place.”[iii]

Beck’s appropriation of the memory of the Civil Rights Movement for the Tea Party’s cause did not go unnoticed. Publics erupted in protest. Jon Stewart called the Beck’s rally “I Have a Scheme,” satirizing its strategic connection to the “I Have a Dream” speech. Robert Greenwald, an activist and film maker protesting Beck’s rally, created a website and video titled “Glenn Beck is Not Martin Luther King Jr” with a petition receiving over 30,000 signatures. In the video, Greenwald juxtaposed “shock jock”-style sound bites from Beck with Dr. King’s spiritual oratory in his “Dream” speech, highlighting the absurdity of Beck’s claim to Dr. King’s legacy. At its conclusion, a message read, “Don’t let Beck distort Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy. Sign your name to virtually stand with Dr. King’s vision on August 28th.”[iv] Civil rights activist, Reverend Al Sharpton, called Beck’s event an “outright attempt to flip the imagery of Dr. King.”[v] The day before the rally, political commentator Chris Matthews said on his MSNBC show, Hardball With Chris Matthews:

Can we imagine if King were physically here tomorrow…were he to reappear tomorrow on the very steps of the Lincoln Memorial? I have a nightmare that one day a right wing talk show host will come to this spot, his people’s lips dripping with the words ‘interposition’ and ‘nullification.’ Little right wing boys and little right wing girls joining hands and singing their praise for Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. I have a nightmare.

Still, on August 28th Beck stood, like King, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and gave an impassioned speech to a crowd of roughly 87,000 Tea Party supporters, declaring their work had “everything to do with God…turning our faith back to the values and the principles that made us great.” He went on to describe an America at a crossroads, not unlike the country Lincoln faced during the Civil War. Referring to the Tea Party’s struggle, he said, “It’s the same story throughout history, all of mankind’s history. Man finds himself in slavery and then someone appears to wake America up.”[vi] Through religious and historical imagery, Beck emphasized the power of American individualism in the face of oppression which he described as a sort of “slavery,” driving home the analogy between conservative Americans’ plight under multicultural democracy and Black Americans’ past enslavement.

Further down the National Mall, Al Sharpton and Dr. King’s eldest son, Martin Luther King III, were leading a rival rally at the planned site for the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial: the “Reclaim the Dream” commemorative march. Executive director of the National Council of Negro Women, Avis Jones DeWeever, pleaded with the audience, “Don’t let anyone tell you that they have the right to take their country back. It’s our country, too. We will reclaim the dream. It was ours from the beginning.”[vii] With Dr. King’s son in tow as a living symbol, a gatekeeper of collective memory, the Tea Party’s claims to King’s legacy appeared illegitimate.

How did the collective memory of the Civil Rights Movement, of Dr. King, become a ready-made political strategy for mobilization by groups with divergent, even antithetical aims?

Yet the Tea Party organizers had prepared for this dilemma. Glenn Beck had arranged for another symbolic figure to speak. Alveda King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s niece and an outspoken right-wing activist proceeded to take the stage at the Rally to Restore Honor. Alveda King called on the audience to:

​ … focus not on elections or on political causes but on honor, on character…not the color of our skin. Yes, I too have a dream….That America will pray and God will forgive us our sins and revive us our land…My daddy, Reverend A. D. King, my granddaddy, Martin Luther King, Senior – we are a family of faith, hope and love. And that’s why I’m here today. Glenn says there is one human race; I agree with him. We are not here to divide. I’m about unity. That’s why I’m here, and I want to honor my uncle today. [viii]

Here was another living inheritor of Dr. King, of the Civil Rights Movement, lending credence to the Tea Party vision of colorblind individualism, where the acknowledgment of race, of racism, of racial inequality, could be named anti-white reverse racism.

From beyond the audience of the rally’s conservative followers, there were vocal critics who worked to discredit the Tea Party’s misuses of Dr. King. Yet Beck and the skilled Tea Party organizers had looked back on the political battles of the decades prior and they had come to anticipate these critiques. In the months leading up to the rally, they had worked tirelessly to thwart progressive activists’ critiques by using Dr. King’s own language, the imagery of the historic setting, and now with Alveda King, the living progeny of the symbolic figure.

Historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote that social movements “[back] their innovations by reference to a ‘people’s past,’…to traditions of revolution…and to [their] own heroes and martyrs.”[ix] Yet Dr. King was not always a “hero and martyr” for conservatives. Just 30 years prior, there were spirited congressional battles around designating Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday as a national holiday. Conservatives denounced King as a ‘communist traitor,’ made public his extramarital affairs to sully his reputation and question his morality. They declared King an unworthy figure for national celebration and commemoration. Although President Reagan signed the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday into existence in 1983, state-wide battles over the King holiday lasted into the 1990’s. In many states like Alabama and Mississippi, the concession towards the King holiday arrived only with an agreement to merge the holiday with confederate ‘heroes’ like Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson. South Carolina was the last state to approve a paid King holiday in the year 2000. Yet just ten years later, Glenn Beck, a brazenly radical conservative, would stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to “reclaim” King’s dream for the Tea Party. The next month, Tea Party activists would sweep primary elections, and over the next few years, they would move the Republican party irrevocably to the right.

How did the collective memory of the Civil Rights Movement, of Dr. King, become a ready-made political strategy for mobilization by groups with divergent, even antithetical aims? More importantly, what are the consequences of these (mis)uses of collective memory? How does misremembering the past matter for contemporary politics, and how does it shape the direction of our collective future?

At first glance, perhaps the Tea Party Movement’s invocations of Dr. King do not seem all that surprising. After all, scholars have shown that since the civil rights era of the 1960’s, all sorts of groups including women, Latinos, Asians, the disabled, and LGBTQ coalitions have used memories of the Civil Rights Movement to make claims to inclusion and equality. This period of widespread collective action by minoritized groups has been coined “the minority rights revolution,”[x] the “movement of movements,”[xi] and the rise of the “civil rights society.”[xii] For historically excluded groups, strategic invocations of the Civil Rights Movement seem like a natural mobilization strategy with a ready-made set of what social movement scholars call repertoires of contention- the tactics, frames, and actions for mobilization against injustice.[xiii] More generally, the memory of the Civil Rights Movement has moved to the mainstream of American collective memory. The memory of Black Americans joining with kindhearted white Americans, mobilizing for and achieving legal recognition, is central to the story of “who we are” as Americans, a shining beacon of the promise of American democracy. Dr. King is mythologized as the moral compass of American identity reminding us of an unrelenting march forward, where “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

However, increasingly since the 1980’s, right-wing, majority-white social movements from the Gun Rights and Family Values coalitions to nativist, White-Supremacist movements have reshaped and deployed the collective memory of the Civil Rights Movement to claim they are the new minorities fighting for their rights. In these invocations, gun rights activists are the new Rosa Parks, anti-abortion activists are freedom riders, and anti-gay groups are protecting Dr. King’s Christian vision. These misuses of the past are not merely rhetorical. These strategies have powerful effects. As mobilizing groups remake a collective memory toward competing political ends, they generate new interpretations of the past which take on a life of their own. The proliferation of these interpretations of history, over time, changes the collective memory itself, shaping the way we make sense of the present and the way we direct action toward the future.

The danger of a sanitized reading of the past is that this selective memory evades social reality and enables the maintenance of white supremacy.

As social historians have shown, the domesticated memory of the Civil Rights Movement has transformed into a vacated, sanitized collective memory celebrating colorblindness and individualism, as if racism is a figment of the past.[xiv] In the popular imagination, Dr. King was a widely beloved moral leader, preaching peace and nonviolence at all costs, invested in the dream of American exceptionalism. Rosa Parks was an accidental activist, a tired old lady who did not want to stand up that day. These whitewashed memories are not only bound in the national holiday we celebrate once a year. These memories are also narrativized in children’s textbooks, Oscar-winning films, political speeches, and popular media. These representations amplify selective representations of particular figures – Dr. King, Rosa Parks, John Lewis - rendering other pivotal civil rights activists and their rich stories, their struggles, their power, invisible.[xv] These flattened, “defanged”[xvi] memories are commemorated by rosy images of Black and white Americans joining, arms linked, in a quest for racial justice, through a particular conception of racism and violence as existing specifically in the south and – notably – as existing in the distant past.[xvii] These representations are juxtaposed against memories of “radical,” “threatening” activists like Malcolm X and the Black Panthers as “divisive” separatists, “a disruptive force to a beloved community.”[xviii] These meanings are bound in commemorative structures and remain at the center of American collective memory. Why does it matter that the collective memory of the Civil Rights Movement is remembered in this selective way? After all, collective memories generate a shared identity, they connect us in a common narrative of our collective past, so is it so bad that the Civil Rights Movement be remembered through ideals of unity, peace, and colorblindness?

The danger of a sanitized reading of the past is that this selective memory evades social reality and enables the maintenance of white supremacy. While the story of racial progress can be a palatable one, the evidence tells a different story. The vestiges of a nation founded on the genocide of Native Americans and the violent enslavement of Black people live on in our institutions and our culture through systemic racism,[xix] what Joe Feagin describes as the “complex array of white anti-other (e.g., anti-black) practices, the unjustly gained economic/political power of whites, the continuing economic and other resource inequalities along racial lines (unjust enrichment/unjust impoverishment), and the racial framing created by whites to rationalize privilege and power.”

Hajar Yazdiha is assistant professor of sociology and a faculty affiliate of the Equity Research Institute at the University of Southern California.



[i] Calderone, “Fox’s Beck.”

[ii] Zernike, “Where Dr. King Stood, Tea Party Claims His Mantle.”

[iii] Beck, The Glenn Beck Program.

[iv] Greenwald, “Glenn Beck Is Not Martin Luther King Jr. | The Huffington Post.”

[v] Sisk, “Glenn Beck.”

[vi] Beck, Glenn Beck: Keynote Address at the Restoring Honor Rally.

[vii] Harris and Thompson, “Sharpton’s ‘Reclaim the Dream’ Event Brings Thousands to Honor MLK.”

[viii] Dolak, “Alveda King Speaks at Glenn Beck’s D.C. Rally.”

[ix] Hobsbawm, The Invention of Tradition.

[x] Skrentny, The Minority Rights Revolution.

[xi] Fraser and Gerstle, The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930-1980.

[xii] Bumiller, The Civil Rights Society.

[xiii] Snow and Benford, “Master Frames and Cycles of Protest”; Tarrow, Power in Movement; Tilly, From Mobilization to Revolution.

[xiv] Hall, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past”; Hill, “Sanitizing the Struggle”; Romano and Raiford, The Civil Rights Movement in American Memory; Theoharis, A More Beautiful and Terrible History; Terry, “MLK Now.”

[xv] Barnett, “Invisible Southern Black Women Leaders in the Civil Rights Movement”; Robnett, “African-American Women in the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1965”; Collier-Thomas, Franklin, and Franklin, Sisters in the Struggle; Glasrud and Pitre, Southern Black Women in the Modern Civil Rights Movement; Greene, Our Separate Ways.

[xvi] Cobb, “William Barber Takes on Poverty and Race in the Age of Trump.”

[xvii] Morris, The Scholar Denied; Theoharis, A More Beautiful and Terrible History; Hall, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past.”

[xviii] Bell, The Black Power Movement and American Social Work.

[xix] Baker, “The Historical Racial Regime and Racial Inequality in Poverty in the American South.”