Today is a proud anniversary for the civil rights movement in America, and for all those around the world who have been inspired by its maxims and fired by its example. In vivid scenes of brotherhood 47 years ago, Americans white and black gathered along the Washington Mall in support of 'jobs and freedom'. Activists and citizens alike marvelled at the staggering turnout; Bob Dylan and Mahalia Jackson serenaded the movement; a flotilla of placards demanded segregation's end; and Martin Luther King Jr extemporized fervent church themes into a universalist democratic credo: 'With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.'
In Obama's America, how then is the anniversary being respected? The New York Times reports this morning:
It seems the ultimate thumb in the eye: that Glenn Beck would summon the Tea Party faithful to a rally on the anniversary of the March on Washington, and address them from the very place where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his "I have a dream" speech 47 years ago. After all, the Tea Party and its critics have been facing off for months over accusations of racism.
On his radio show, Mr. Beck said he had not intended to choose the anniversary for his "Restoring Honor" rally on Saturday but had since decided it was "divine providence."
Dr. King's dream, he told listeners, "has been so corrupted."
"Judge a man by the content of his character?" he said. "Character doesn't even matter in this country. It's time we picked back up the job.”
He later added: "We are the people of the civil rights movement. We are the ones that must stand for civil and equal rights, justice, equal justice. Not special justice, not social justice. We are the inheritors and protectors of the civil rights movement. They are perverting it."
Nothing could be more emblematic of the warped and bizarre character of American politics than having Mr Beck - a massively successful Coughlinite demagogue, who styles President Obama variously as a racist, socialist, Communist Nazi - claim the inheritance and protection of the civil rights movement. Indeed, that the Tea Party 'movement', the most bellicose and reactionary constituency of the American right, could seek to capture and supplant itself on the altar of the civil rights movement seems so strange as to still all satire. Tea Party ideology (such as it is), while primarily anti-government, is frequently festooned with tropes of nativist populism familiar on the far-right fringe of the Republican party: easy use of 'spic' and 'nigger' is not unheard of. As the Times notes, the Tea Party has for months been locked in bitter dispute with (civil rights organization) the NAACP over the former's reluctance to acknowledge explicit racism within its ranks. Strangest of all, Sarah Palin, who will be the most prominent politician to address the Restoring Honor rally, was in the news recently mounting a strident defence of a (white) broadcaster's right to say 'nigger, nigger, nigger' on air.
Yet one reason that this capture has not raised more than just a few eyebrows is that the March on Washington itself - indeed, much of the civil rights movement - has been bleached of much of its animating, radical spirit. When Mr Beck derides the very notion of 'social justice', he is relying on the ignorance of those who don't know, or who have not been told, that the day's full title was the 'March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom", and that built into the marchers' demands for an end to segregation was an end to rampant poverty. He is probably unaware, as are most Americans, that the organizing impetus of the day came from left-wing groups and - crucially - America's unions. Walter Reuther, leader of the auto-workers union, stood beside King as he spoke; A. Phillip Randolph, the man who had the original 'dream' of hundreds of thousands descending on the seat of federal power, was President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, President of the Negro American Labor Council, and Vice President of the AFL-CIO.
'Social justice', therefore, was intimately tied in with racial justice. John Lewis - student firebrand, now venerable congressman - opened his remarks on the day thusly: 'We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of. For hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here. They have no money for their transportation, for they are receiving starvation wages - or no wages at all.' King himself held always the joint vision of racial equality and social justice. 'There must', he said, 'be a better distribution of wealth - and maybe America must move toward democratic socialism'. He proclaimed the gospel of the poor, and died in Memphis supporting trash collectors organizing for better pay and conditions. At his death he was planning a reprise of the 1963 descent on Washington - the 'Poor Peoples' March'.
King was, when alive, perhaps the American right's most hated figure: denounced as a traitor and maligned as a conspiratorial communist, his name and likeness (and indeed his person) subject to repeated instances of inane slander and abuse. It is remarkable how (although he is necessarily esconsed in a perimeter of official security) President Obama has been the object of much of the same noxious rhetoric. Communist, socialist, muslim, traitor: Obama's image in the eyes of his enemies is one of unrelieved calumny. The President, of course, is no radical, and his policies and politics lack the zeal of King's straightforward challenge to injustice. But he represents, and indeed seeks to foster, a vision of society more just and humane than that bequeathed to him. On his success rests the fate of social justice in America; for it is he who remains the real inheritor and protector of King's legacy. (Sean Coleman)