Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 23 October 2014

The Right has got it all wrong. King was a real social reformer

The fifth of Americans who believe that Barak Obama is a Muslim were well-represented at the rally in Washington on Saturday marking the anniversary of Martin Luther King's 1963 'I have a dream' speech.

Judging by the vox-pops, many gathered in the name of the great civil rights leader believed, too, that millions of Hispanics living in the US without papers should be rounded up and deported without further ado.

One man with 'Civil rights, not social rights' emblazoned on his T-shirt, declared that, "This is a socialist government . . . it should be overthrown. I believe that if (Obama) could, he'd rather see Israel annihilated. I think he sympathises with the terrorists. I believe he is an anti-Semite.''

It will have seemed to most of us, I think, whatever our own political perspectives, that these opinions sit strangely with the legacy of Dr King. The leading figures at Saturday's event - Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin - will not be seen widely, either, as King's natural successors.

Beck is a right-wing radio commentator, Palin the former Republican Vice-Presidential candidate who now leads the Tea Party movement and won't strike anybody as the Alaskan most likely to have had a Martin Luther King poster on her bedroom wall. All very confusing. But clarification of a sort can be attained by pondering what the man in the T-shirt meant by contrasting civil rights and social rights.

The Beck/Palin argument is that the civil rights movement associated with King had aimed at equality before the law for all citizens - not at economic reform, or at any shift in US foreign policy. Thus, those who try to link King's legacy to redistribution of wealth or to opposition to wars in faraway places today have, in Beck's words, "purposely distorted Martin Luther King's ideas".

"Who were the civil rights marchers? They were people with profound belief in God. They were trying to put things right. They weren't crying for social justice, but crying out for equal justice. We are the inheritors and protectors of the movement."

Social justice, he explained, "is the same thing as taking money from one group and giving it to another". Ms Palin, as ever, was somewhat less nuanced: "Their 'social justice' is just socialism." One reason Beck and Palin's take on the Sixties' movement won't have struck all Americans as off-the-wall is that it can, at a push, be fitted into the mainstream view of the matter.

King was a campaigner for social justice in exactly the sense which Glenn Beck denies.

Around the same time as the Washington speech, he addressed a congregation at Riverside Church in New York.

Denouncing the US government as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today", he called for "a true revolution of values (which) will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth . . . ''

The Washington march had first been mooted by a socialist union organiser, Asa Philip Randolf. The '10 Demands of the Marchers', began with calls for civil rights legislation, but went on to look for legislation "to guarantee all Americans decent housing" and for a "national minimum wage (to) give all Americans a decent standard of living".

The march was about everything Beck and Palin deny it was about.

And the distortion has been facilitated by some who have expressed dismay at the Beck/Palin twisting of the truth, but who have hardly been to the forefront in proclaiming King's real message. It has suited a range of interests for a considerable time to allow the distorted version to seep into the accepted narrative of history. Beck and Palin are merely taking advantage. Is the distortion more egregious than a pretence that there was no prominent, socialist dimension to the Sixties' civil rights movement here, highlighting class rather than communal differences?

Any more grotesque than a suggestion that the achievement of a pale version of the civil rights demands had been the purpose of a 25-year armed struggle which can thus be proclaimed victorious?

We shouldn't feel too superior. There are plenty of Becks and Palins among us.

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