Charles D. Ellison: The Content of our Foolishness

As much as the enlightened, historically correct bunch of us would hate to admit, Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor rally was a masterful stroke of PR genius. Beautifully staged, well-orchestrated and, more importantly, organized. One message was clear: any advertisers mulling withdrawal in fear of boycott catcalls should think twice – “how you like me, now?” Essentially, he solidified his money base, the stream of listeners flowing into the National Mall this past Saturday providing strong assist.

The dangerous detail missed in the Beck rally was his focus on the troops. Restoring Honor also played the role of recruitment drive. Rally an army of sympathizers in thousands of returning, trained and combat-seasoned troops who will find their re-integration into society a frustrating and, in some cases, near impossible proposition. Cleverly coding “faith” into it (“As darkness begins to grow again, faith is in short supply“) is a 21st century Crusades. It gives purpose when there is none to feel. An alternative of self-worth perversely morphed into something nefarious. As Beck strengthens his political base, he’ll need bodyguards, minions and mindless (potentially armed, Second Amendment-loving don’t-know-any-better) fools to have his back.

If it hasn’t already, the Obama Administration will need to pay serious attention to troop re-integration and veterans affairs in a big way upon return from the war zone. Who wins the hearts and minds of the troops, first? That’s a key question.

So, we’ve already established that he “went there,” poking finger in a jello bowl of fun at the 47th Anniversary of the fabled March on Washington. So awfully intense was that feeling, that some of us headed to D.C. just to see it or to “counter protest” it – thereby resurrecting the careers of some who’ve hungered for relevancy, anyway. The provocative talk show host proved Barnum’s maxim on fools every minute, taking it next level with brazen ferocity after picking one of the more hallowed, untouchable moments in American history: the 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have a Dream” speech.

As compelling as Beck’s choice of date and venue was the resulting clash of grand political movements intersecting ideological corners on that same day. On one side, organizing the original rally and serving as its central impetus was Beck and an assortment of red-toned conservatives representing everything on the right from Tea Party to gun rights. On the other side was a consortium of prominent civil rights icons, staring it all down in frustration over what they saw as the FOX talk-show host’s blatantly disrespectful use of that historic day for personal gain. Squashed in the middle was the newly-minted Celebrate the Dream, a hodge-podge of lesser known advocacy groups and artists unveiling an original sculpture of King by Georgia State University professor Michael Murphy.

While each “movement” differed in agenda and mission, everyone wants to march. The oddest thing was the off-year observance. Normally, we expect 45th Anniversary; maybe wait until 50th. But, 47th?

One could stretch and argue an unwitting, symbolic convergence of competing racial and political interests meeting in one place – similar to the themes on August 28, 1963 when 250,000 plus people participated in the largest gathering of its kind before the Million Man March broke all records in 1995. There was something beautifully democratic and open in that sort of assemblage. Organizers appeared to keep it clean and civil. Despite the rancor and rhetorical guns blazing, we could wax idealistic and find some moderation in the events, offer an epiphany on the National Mall amid the political pressure-cooker of this racially charged summer. After all, should you take his word for it, Beck was simply “honoring” the troops while celebrating “American values.” Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, in conjunction with the NAACP, National Urban League, Tom Joyner and others, billed their presence at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial site as Reclaiming the Dream (hardly maintaining a straight face when arguing they weren’t reacting to Beck. Again: 47th Anniversary, fam? Really …).

Restore. Reclaim. Clearly, folks want to return to … something . Relevancy? Perhaps. Beck attempts to maximize the visibility of brand and television show through shock marketing. Sharpton and others among the legendary “old guard” of civil rights icons show they still matter in the prematurely dubbed post-racial world of President Obama.

But, with the economy still sputtering and unemployment stubbornly high, history trends towards racial animosities and group xenophobia during hard times. We’ve seen this before. While we hoped organizers stuck to King’s universal script on Saturday, the tension was – and still is – palpably thick.

King’s speech – by far the most passionate and best-delivered in the Great American Speech canon – had been, for some time, our moment … or, by that, some of us mean a sacred Black moment etched in legend. But, was it really that before Beck took his bite at it? Why are we so surprised and astonished, so offended by Beck’s gall when we saw it coming all this time? He’s not the first. During a June 28th show, Beck merely put his own “Hey-I’m-just-an-innocent-White-guy” spin on it:

[T]oo many have either gotten just lazy or they have purposely distorted Martin Luther King’s ideas of judge a man by the content of his character. Lately, in the last 20 years, we’ve been told that character doesn’t matter. Well, if character doesn’t matter, then what was Martin Luther King asking people to judge people by?

It’s that annoying, specious retort since King gave the speech. I once overheard an elderly cat laugh back in grim jest: “I wish Dr. King had never given that damn speech.” It was a sense that what Black folks knew King was getting at was forever lost in translation and American iconography. It is now the Great Racial Tease prompted by that Great American Speech and its “content of our character” line mangled into political one-upmanship by the same ideological wing that called King a Communist when he was alive. After 40 years, he’s been transformed, posthumously, into the “spiritual leader” of the modern conservative movement. When attempting to draw some degree of Black empowerment from that moment on Lincoln Memorial steps, most African Americans must do so in sobering privacy out of fear it will find itself slapped like oozing yellow yolk on the face. Though use of “content of our character” in racial reverse is – at first glance – portrayed as fair play, it’s really an insidious attempt at deconstructing and, ultimately, destroying Black self-esteem.

Beck simply fit the last piece to a puzzling mish-mash of racial rhetoric that’s consumed conservative political strategy all midterm summer: anti-immigration; anti-mosque; anti-Black Panther. Anti-Obama or any Black man running government for that matter. The late, great Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall strangely took it on the chin during Justice Elena Kagan’s confirmation hearings. The irony, topped with whip cream when Sarah Palin offered spirited defense of Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s animated and show-ending repetition of “n****r,” is that Republican neo-racial incitement completely circumvents the party’s official Chairman – who is Black. Last checked, he’s made no attempt to even notice.


(some content originally published in

Read more: White House, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Economy, Reclaiming the Dream, President Obama, Restoring Honor Rally, “I Have a Dream” Speech, Glenn Beck Rally, Naacp, Veterans, National Urban League, Iraq Veterans, Afghanistan Veterans, Tom Joyner, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, Sarah Palin, Rev. Al Sharpton, Glenn Beck, National Action Network, Politics News


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