Glenn Beck Attempts to Co-Opt Dr. King’s Civil Rights Legacy

On his June 18 radio talk show, Glenn Beck discussed his upcoming “Restoring Honor” rally, which is scheduled to take place this coming August 28th at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.  If Beck’s earlier “Rally for America” (2003), the finale of his book promotion tour through “real America” is any indication, there will be lots of flag waving, honoring the troops, and some relatively small crowds.  But he has something else in mind for this rally.

(Beck at ‘Rally for America’ 2003)

As Beck noted, August 28 marks the 47th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. What critical, progressive commentators can only recognize as an absurd, disgusting irony befitting life in the 21st century “bizarro world” of contemporary racial relations, Beck regards himself and the event as ordained by no less than God:

“what an appropriate day – at first we picked that date and we didn’t know and I thought ‘oh geez,’ but now I think it was almost Divine providence… I do.”

In his characteristically melodramatic style (and despite the fact that his initial hesitation suggests he, himself, questioned the appropriateness of doing so) Beck ran with the symbolism, sentimentally opining on June 15:

“As we create history together, your children will be able to say ‘I remember. I was there,’ as we… as we pick up Martin Luther King’s dream that has been distorted and lost. It’s time to restore it, and to finish it.”

There are perhaps no better words to capture the perfectly incongruous nature of this association than those provided by the master of satire, Stephen Colbert: “Finally, someone is bringing Martin Luther King’s movement back to its conservative white roots” (The Colbert Report, June 23).

Indeed, the idea that Glenn Beck or his scheduled guests (which include Sarah Palin and the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre and Ted Nugent) should assume the mantel of restoring King’s dream is beyond perverse. Recent articles by Dennis Henigan and Paul Helmke expose the track records of the individuals involved in planning this event, and with those, demonstrate what an offense this event is to the civil rights legacy of Dr. King. Among many gems from NRA Board Member, Ted Nugent, is his public declaration that South Africa’s apartheid wasn’t that “cut and dry,” because “all men are not created equal. The preponderance of South Africa is a different breed of man.” Is the wicked irony of the NRA’s celebrated presence at an event shrouded in the legacy of the assassinated leader, whose entire platform was built on peaceful, nonviolent protest, lost on everyone organizing this event?

Beck, for his part, has been at the conservative right forefront of what anti-racist writer/educator Tim Wise has cleverly labeled the “Cult of White Victimhood,” and their calls of “faux-pression”. In fact, Beck has not only argued that President Obama’s policy agenda is driven by “reparations” and the desire to “settle old racial scores,” (an absurd claim, the legitimacy of some form of restorative justice notwithstanding); he boldly claimed on Fox News that Obama was a “racist” with a clear “deep-seated hatred for white people.”

Stepping back from the obvious problems of Beck’s rally, however, we should contextualize white conservatives’ embrace of Dr. King’s legacy and civil rights rhetoric in a larger
framework. This latest example is part and parcel of an increasingly commonplace exercise in colorblind racism. Whites frequently invoke memories of the civil rights movement and the beloved Dr. King as a maneuver of positive self-presentation, evidence of the progress we have made in society. While the intentions of such whites may be “good,” the rhetoric remains problematic nonetheless, as it is often employed to invalidate the persistence of ongoing interpersonal, institutionalized and structural racism.

More malevolent and concerning, however, is the way in which white conservatives are increasingly invoking the civil rights legacy to support the actual dismantling of civil rights victories. Tragically, the paradoxical invocation of civil rights rhetoric has become a contemporary means by which the racial status quo of white supremacy is restabilized and even strengthened against further attack. Consider the way in which “civil rights” have been rearticulated in the battle over affirmative action. In the past several years “Civil Rights Initiatives” groups have emerged in numerous states, including Michigan, Washington, California, Nebraska, Colorado and Arizona. While the name might suggest otherwise, these groups have successfully introduced “civil rights” proposals in the past 2006 and 2008 November election ballots that would ban affirmative action in government hiring and university admissions.  (In at least one case, the U.S. District Court found that the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative had engaged in systematic voter fraud, as individuals recruited to sign the anti-affirmative action petition were led to believe the ballot initiative was actually in support of affirmative action.   This suggests just how distorted “civil rights” rhetoric has become in recent years.)  Indeed, affirmative action has been rendered largely impotent in wake of these types of legal battles, including several key Supreme Court decisions.

Similar rearticulations of “civil rights” abound. Affirmative action re-coded as “reverse discrimination”; health care and economic reform reframed as “reparations,” with the implicit understanding that something is being taken from innocent whites and redistributed to undeserving blacks; fellowship and scholarship programs originally designed to increase the representation students of color in various programs literally struck down under the Civil Rights Act of 1964!

In this upside-down climate, conservatives like Beck and other “Cult of White Victimhood” members unflinchingly argue that they are the true defenders of civil rights, as they work to erode the hard fought gains of people of color and protect normative white dominance. With no-end in sight, the need for critical scholars, activists, and citizens to publicly deconstruct the political rhetoric of so-called “civil rights” in the 21st century, and reappropriate and protect the civil rights symbols of our past is nothing short of urgent.

~ Jennifer Mueller, Doctoral Candidate & Graduate Lecturer, Department of Sociology, Texas A&M University


  1. No1KState

    The way to stop discrimination is . . . to stop discriminating.

    Such genius reappropriation of the Movement from no less than our Supreme Court chief justice. Who would never consider race in any decision he made. And we know this because he never called himself a “wise white man.”


    The logic behind conservative theft of the Movement is so vacuous and evil, for lack of better words, it leaves me . . . literally without better words. It’s painful. And that so many, cause one is too many, people actually believe this nonsense . . . [better words go here.] It’s like AZ’s state superintendent claiming to have been there 47-years-ago and been so struck by the “Dream”: nearly 3/4ths of the speech is entirely overlooked, ignored, dismissed, forgotten.

    It’s painful.

    But here’s what I know: God don’t like ugly. Now, I hesitate to go as far as crediting God for bad weather or anything like that. Don’t get me wrong; I would love it if a black cloud were to hang over the Lincoln Memorial that day and all the rest of DC enjoy 72degrees and clear skies. (In Jesus name!) But whatever happens, God don’t like ugly. And if God has to continue to let white Americans feel the pain of their callousness to the plight of others, I think God just might do that. Cause we’re in the economic mess we’re in part because when ACORN and Revs Jackson and Sharpton began to cry foul on subprime lending, they were ignored. Right?

    The striking thing is that as bad as the economy is for white America, it’s twice as bad for black America, and you don’t see us whining. No, literally. You don’t see us whining. There hasn’t been a lot of media coverage of progressive protests and counter-protests. But even if there were, every time black folks protest an injustice, people call the riot police. When unjust immigration laws are protested, you see the riot police standing ready. Meanwhile, white people are allowed to strap on machine guns and have the police protect their “rights.” And the whole truth of the matter is, even if we ignore the history of white race riots, it’s difficult to “riot” in a suburb where you own the property and businesses. Right?


    And listen, I’m not looking to get into a theological debate about what God, if God. It’s just that “in times like these,” we find comfort in our faith. In fact, the activists of the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s found strength in their faith.

    Which brings about another painful irony: these white American protestants, who follow Beck like he’s the second coming of John the Baptist if not Jesus, they’re claiming the same God worshipped by millions of activists and African Americans both in the past and in the present. While I repeat Lincoln’s sentiments in not hoping that God’s on my side but that I’m on God’s side; I cannot fathom that both myself and the Beck-heads are on the same side.

  2. Kristen

    Thanks for the great analysis, Jenni.

    Since I don’t have tv in my home, I didn’t actually know much about Glenn Beck until I joined my gym this summer – his Fox “news” show is usually playing during my evening workouts.
    What I think is the scariest thing about GB is that he strikes this “I’m the smartest guy you know” pose. He is the conservative idiot’s intellectual. He wears those thick-rimmed glasses and lays out his theories like the professor your kids never had at that liberal arts college. In fact, he did a segment this week called “Restoring History” with an audience of teenagers. Watching them listen attentively, nodding, and asking him questions about how the Founding Fathers would feel about the current state of affairs was pretty disgusting.

    Your piece is such a good example of how contorted his “logic” is. You said “upside-down,” which I think is apt to describe the bizarro crap happening around race, media and politics since Obama took office. And it’s never going to make any logical sense unless we acknowledge that people (read: moderate to conservative whites) are not connecting with him on the level of thought or facts – it’s just all visceral, self-interested, paranoid, and very emotional defenses of whiteness.


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