A few words about who “we” is.
“This is a moment,” said Glenn Beck three months ago on his radio program, “... that I think we ‘reclaim’ the civil rights movement. It has been so distorted and so turned upside down. ... 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 moment. We will take that movement, because we were the people that did it in the first place!”
Beck was promoting his “Restoring Honor” rally, to be held Saturday at the Lincoln Memorial, 47 years to the day after Martin Luther King famously spoke there. You’ll notice he didn’t define the “we” he had in mind, but it seems reasonable to suppose Beck was speaking of people like himself: affluent middle-age conservatives possessed of the ability to see socialism and communism in places where it somehow escapes the notice of others.
If you agree that assumption is reasonable, then you must also agree Beck’s contention that his “we” were the architects of the civil rights movement is worse than nonsensical, worse than mendacious, worse than shameless. It is “obscene.” It is theft of legacy. It is robbery of martyrs’ graves.
We’re in an odd moment. Having opposed the freedom movement of the 20th century, some social conservatives seek, now that that movement stands vindicated and venerated, to arrogate unto themselves its language and heroes, to remake it in their image.
Thus, you get claims that “racism” is now what Shirley Sherrod said in a speech to the NAACP. And people calling Sarah Palin the new face of feminism. And conservatives touting the likelihood that King voted Republican — as if the party in 1957 bore any resemblance to the party now.
But even by those standards, Glenn Beck’s effrontery is monumental. Even by those standards, he goes too far. Beck was part of the “we” who founded the civil rights movement!? “No.” Here’s who “we” is.
“We” is Emmett Till, tied to a cotton gin fan in the murky waters of the Tallahatchie River. “We” is Rosa Parks telling the bus driver no. “We” is Diane Nash on a sleepless night waiting for missing Freedom Riders to check in. “We” is Charles Sherrod, husband of Shirley, gingerly testing desegregation compliance in an Albany, Ga., bus station. “We” is a sharecropper making his X on a form held by a white college student from the North. “We” is celebrities like Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando and Pernell Roberts of “Bonanza,” lending their names, their wealth and their labor to the cause of freedom.
“We” is Medgar Evers, Michael Schwerner, Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, Viola Liuzzo, Cynthia Wesley, Andrew Goodman, Denise McNair, James Chaney, Addie Mae Collins and Carole Robertson, shot, beaten and blown to death for that cause.
“We” is Lyndon Johnson, building a legislative coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats to defeat intransigent Southern Democratic conservatives and enshrine that cause into law.
And “we” is Martin Luther King, giving voice and moral clarity to the cause — and paying for it with his life.
The we to which Glenn Beck belongs is the we that said no, the we that cried “socialism!” “communism!” “tyranny!” whenever black people and their allies cried, freedom.
The fatuous and dishonorable attempt to posit conservatives as the prime engine of civil rights depends for success on the ignorance of the American people. Sadly, as anyone who has ever watched a Jay Walking segment on “The Tonight Show” can attest, the American people have ignorance in plenitude.
This, then, is to serve notice as Beck and his tea party faithful gather in Lincoln’s shadow to claim the mantle of King: Some of us are not ignorant. Some of us remember. Some of us know very well who “we” is.
And, who “we” is not.
— Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com. firstname.lastname@example.org