Glenn Beck Co-opting the Steps of the Lincoln Memorial

By Ruth Hawley-Lowry 7-27-2010

I am grieved and angry that Glenn Beck is going to be on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28 (the anniversary of the historic civil rights March on Washington on August 28, 1963) -- and I am not sure what to do about it. I'd like to invite you, as a reader of Sojourners, into a journey of deliberation because this affects you, too (whether you know it or not).

Glenn Beck's co-opting the steps of the Lincoln Memorial troubles me on several fronts:

  • On his signage he has "Restoring Honor," and I must reflect: Whose honor? How is it "restored?" What makes him imagine that he is the one to do it?
  • His tag reads: "Throughout history America has seen many great leaders and noteworthy citizens change her course. It is through their personal virtues and by their example that we are able to live as a free people. On August 28, come celebrate America by honoring our heroes, our heritage and our future." No mention is made of Dr. King in any of Beck's literature. I also am unclear that, as we "celebrate ... our heritage" that we will remember that some of our heritage is tarnished -- and continues to be tarnished -- by our discrimination and continued lack of access to fair housing and decent medical care for our poor and many people of color.
  • They also proffer that "Our freedom is possible only if we remain virtuous. Help us restore the values that founded this great nation." How far do we want to go back? To when people had to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar for the privilege to vote?
  • "There will be absolutely no politics involved" promises their promotional literature -- I would suggest, given his proclamations on his show, that this promise is already broken.

So why does this matter? Because, as impossible as it seems, a lot of good-hearted Christians have been taken in by his rhetoric -- people whom I perceived had the capacity for critical thought but who are taken in by his gentle conversations with Alveda King, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's niece (aired on July 16).

How are others responding? The NAACP, National Action Network, and others will gather at Dunbar High School and some will march to the site of the Martin Luther King Memorial, being built near the FDR Memorial. Black churches from around America are taking buses to D.C. that day, focused on "Reclaiming the Dream."

But what about the rest of us who won't be in D.C. that day? Do we just remain silent? More than a few of my friends have suggested that addressing this day and responding to Beck's plans empowers him more than ever. Perhaps -- I don't know. But what keeps ringing in my spirit are the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: "In the end, we will not remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."

Some of us are talking about gathering that day locally and remembering the words of Dr. King and the original speech that Congressman Lewis wanted to give that day, so many years ago on August 28, 1963. Most Americans refer to that speech of Dr. King as the "I Have a Dream" speech. But most older African Americans refer to that day as "The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." It was a day birthed in hope -- and anger from the centuries of dreams deferred. On August 28, 1963, the government was afraid; they closed the liquor stores, and government officials were told they didn't need to go to work that day. But on that day God's demand for justice was proclaimed when Dr. King preached:

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

No one "owns" the Lincoln Memorial. By God's grace, I've obtained the permit to gather there twice -- with Naomi Tutu on the 40th anniversary of Dr. King's martyrdom, and with the Rosa Parks Institute on August 28, 2008. But we yearned to honor the sacrifice of the tens of thousands who traveled to an inhospitable Washington, D.C. so many years ago.

To remain silent as Glenn Beck attempts to co-opt the legacy of that place on that day seems egregious. This is not a "Glenn Beck" vs. "social justice" or some persona that Beck keeps seeking to diminish (like Jim Wallis). This, to me, seems to be a very basic issue of right and wrong.

But with a month away, how do we respond as faithful Christians who seek to love God, neighbor, and the Jesus who said, "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor ... release the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor?"

Rev. Ruth Hawley-Lowry is a pastor in Michigan.

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