LIKE the historic original in 1963, Glenn Beck’s commemorative march on Washington has produced a clash of perception. Marchers celebrated rather than besieged the capital, and sweet piety floated above tribal antagonisms. Responses of disbelief have mingled once again with giddy, puzzled surprise. This time, by embracing the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., stridently conservative speakers revived hard questions about symbolic fusion in politics. Did their words invite a rare shift in the landscape? Or did they merely paint a mirage?
A week ago Saturday, from the Lincoln Memorial steps, Mr. Beck himself described undergoing a stark conversion as he organized the rally. “When I put this together, in my head,” he told the crowd, “I felt it was supposed to be political.” His promotional announcement had put him “into a cold sweat” of doubt, however, until personal crisis made him grab an assistant by the lapels, Mr. Beck declared, “and I pulled him in close, and I screamed in his ear, ‘I don’t know how, but we’re wrong!’” He said an inner voice had told him to drop his slashing polemics, then politics entirely, for an unspecified new theme grounded in spiritual values. “I don’t understand it,” he said he had told his flabbergasted staff, “but this is where we’re going.”
A skilled dramatist, given to surging displays of emotion, Mr. Beck announced that paralysis had gripped him until last spring, when “we were still kind of lost, and we didn’t know what we were going to do when we got here.” He offered his audience no further clues to a mysterious transformation, but my cringing search of his program archives turned up — amid diatribes on Dr. King as a dangerous socialist, and on President Obama as an alien Muslim — a novel encounter with Dr. King’s niece, Alveda. Her first invitation to appear on Mr. Beck’s show suited his political mold, because she is a defiant crusader against abortion rights and gay marriage.
In their interview, Mr. Beck focused instead on a souvenir from the civil rights movement that Alveda King brought with her. The 10-point “pledge of nonviolence,” a copy of the form signed by demonstrators preparing to face persecution and jail, seemed to strike him with the force of revelation. “These people were serious about nonviolence,” Mr. Beck told his cable audience.
He posted the commandments on his Web site, then analyzed them over several broadcasts on the Fox network last April: “No. 3 is ‘walk and talk in the manner of love.’ This one’s going to be hard.” Sacrifice personal wishes, he recited, that all may be free. Observe with friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy. Remember the nonviolent movement seeks justice and reconciliation, not victory.
Mr. Beck extolled disciplined sacrifice by marginal, misunderstood people, noting that most newspapers had branded Dr. King a troublemaker stirring up violence. He added his own saucy twist to the final pledge: As you prepare to march, meditate on the life and teachings of Jesus. “If it’s Buddha, it’s Buddha. If it’s Moses, it’s Moses. But meditate,” Mr. Beck exhorted his viewers. “Jesus, he’s my guy. Your guy might be different.”
Glenn Beck did not adopt nonviolence explicitly for the “Restoring Honor” rally in Washington. That would have been too wrenching a leap for his followers and opponents alike. After all, nonviolent doctrines have been submerged, ignored or forgotten across decades of ethnic assertion and perpetual warfare, even by many heirs of the nonviolent movement themselves.
Mr. Beck obtained a simpler, tamer version from Alveda King last spring, when she recalled her childhood counsel from “Uncle Martin” that nonviolence boiled down to St. Paul’s three abiding guides in the Bible: faith, hope and charity. Mr. Beck told viewers back then that he walked dazed from the studio, gripped by a new theme. “I love this woman!” he announced on April 21. His crisis was ending. “I see the landing strip after last night,” he declared. He would apply organizing techniques from the civil rights movement. On the 47th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, he would bestow citizenship medals for faith, hope and charity.
Only Mr. Beck knows the alternative. Perhaps he would have mocked the 1963 march on its sacrosanct turf, remaining the daredevil ideologue who has posed in a Nazi-like uniform to spice his torment of liberals. The actual rally befuddled and bored many viewers, especially sophisticated ones. A huge crowd swayed to a three-hour tent revival of prayer and patriotism. “God is the answer!” cried Mr. Beck. Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” echoed above the vast National Mall for tributes to the bravery of American soldiers.
Mr. Beck’s history was sloppy at times. He said Moses led the Hebrew people out of slavery “5,000 years ago,” centuries too early, and somehow he had the Pilgrims landing “with malice toward none,” anticipating Lincoln. He said Alveda King’s father, like her uncle, was “killed for standing for what is right,” when in fact A. D. King drowned at home after a long bout with alcohol and depression. His interpretation of the 1963 march diminished the prior mass movement to portray Dr. King as the lone spark in dark national despair. “Every great achievement in human history,” intoned the rally’s announcer, “has started with one person, one crazy idea.”
Still, Mr. Beck’s rally extended respect to the civil rights movement. The giant screen played well-chosen quotations over historic images. The platform mustered far more diversity than the crowd. The program featured a refrain from “Lift Every Voice and Sing” along with remarks by Ms. King, who acknowledged “the great evil divide of racism.” A narrator saluted the fight for racial freedom and an “even harder” fight for equality. “The dream is not completed,” he went on. “It’s an ongoing struggle, one that all Americans should always be willing to undertake.”
Most important, all the speakers placed Dr. King’s cause squarely among the peaks of American history. They sounded a litany from the founders to Frederick Douglass, from slavery to space flight. “Would you have crossed the mountains?” Mr. Beck asked. “I think I would have been stuck at the first river.” He read the Gettysburg Address, and observed that Dr. King had stood beneath the statue of Abraham Lincoln for good reason. “The words are alive,” he told the crowd. “Our most famous speeches are American scripture.”
He explained why the “sacred honor” conclusion to the Declaration of Independence is his cherished favorite despite the religious skepticism of its author, Thomas Jefferson. “Blindfolded fear does not lead to an awakening,” said Mr. Beck, paraphrasing Jefferson. “Questioning with boldness does.” For a nation in crisis, and indeed for a looming “global storm,” he prescribed the nonviolent regimen that had inspired him. “We must get the poison of hatred out of us,” he said. “Go to your churches, your synagogues, your mosques, anyone that is not preaching hate and division, anyone that is not teaching to kill another man.”
Mr. Beck claimed that his urgent call for restoration “has nothing to do with politics” — and pundits, true enough, discerned almost none of the usual partisan propaganda. The rally was considered right-wing mostly by presumption. Mr. Beck wandered into deeper waters elsewhere. He said Dr. King and other patriots whom we honor on the Mall had risked everything for the American experiment in self-government. “It’s not just a country, it’s an idea,” he asserted, and citizens today must renew that affirmation or admit that “the experiment cannot work, that man must be ruled by someone.”
This appeal is thoroughly and inherently political. “I have been looking for the next George Washington,” Mr. Beck said. “I can’t find him.”
When it came to politics at the rally, Mr. Beck always stopped short, perhaps because his new framework points directly away from anti-government orthodoxy. Washington and the founders established freedom by upholding experimental government against those who would tear it down. Lincoln saved the Union from deconstructionist zealots. Dr. King’s dream speech, from patriotic and spiritual ground, appealed unreservedly for the nation to “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed” by passing a civil rights bill to end segregation.
FEAR is a hazard of great endeavors to bridge political differences. In 1963, racial apprehension before Dr. King’s rally drove the federal government to furlough its workers for the day. The Pentagon deployed 20,000 paratroopers. Hospitals stockpiled plasma. Washington banned sales of alcohol, and Major League Baseball canceled not one but two days of Senators baseball, just to be safe. When the march of benign inspiration embarrassed these measures, opponents still insisted that the civil rights bill would enslave white people.
In the years since, the search for common ground has not gotten any easier. Americans are at an impasse over the capacity of national government, torn between hope and resentment, tyranny and liberation, fettered by checks without balance.
Glenn Beck calls himself a damaged product of family tragedy, failed education and past addiction — mercurial and unsure, like many of his hard-pressed audience. He may never follow through from his “new starting point” into constructive politics. Even so, he made peace for one day with the liberal half of the American heritage. That is a good thing. Our political health, in the spirit of Dr. King’s march, requires thoughtful and bold initiatives from all quarters.
Taylor Branch is the author of “Parting the Waters,” “Pillar of Fire” and “At Canaan’s Edge,” a three-volume history of the modern civil rights era.