By DeWayne Wickham
The important thing to remember about the recent anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is not the debate over whether Glenn Beck hijacked the moment by holding a rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
While the conservative talk host’s appropriation of the scene of King’s most famous address offends the spirit of the civil rights leader’s lifelong challenge to those whose lips drip “with the words of interposition and nullification,” it was just a noisy subplot. The day’s more important event came in two other acts.
One, which occurred a short distance from Beck’s rally at Washington’s Dunbar High School, was led by the Rev. Al Sharpton. The other, in Detroit, was headed by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Both, like the 1963 march at which King gave his famous speech, were primarily demonstrations for jobs and the dignity that steady work gives a person.
Then, as now, blacks were hardest hit by joblessness. In 1963, the civil rights movement was largely outside of the nation’s political mainstream. It didn’t come in from the cold until after passage of the landmark civil rights bills of the 1960s. That’s when people like Andrew Young, Parren Mitchell, Richard Hatcher and Marion Barry traded their marching shoes for business suits.
In recent years, the civil rights movement has been more an appendage of the Democratic Party than an independent actor in the struggle for black enfranchisement. But the decision by Jackson, Sharpton and a supporting cast of civil rights groups, backed by organized labor, to “wave the bloody shirt” in their struggle for jobs for blacks, whose unemployment rate is double that of whites, signals a willingness to publicly pressure a Democratic-led White House and Congress.
“Many of us realize that without the real dramatic impact of some street demonstrations they (government leaders) don’t get it,” Sharpton said. “We’ve got to put some public pressure on them they’ll deal with our issues.”
Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally was a thinly disguised act of political chest-thumping by the “Tea Party” movement, which is a 21st century incarnation of the anti-immigration Know-Nothing Movement of the 1850s. Like its predecessor, the Tea Party will be short-lived.
More long lasting, I hope, will be the reawakening of this nation’s civil rights movement. The King anniversary demonstrations were a call for national action that organizers say will be followed up with other efforts between now and Election Day to rally blacks and their white supporters to the polls. That’ll do more to push this nation’s governing Democratic majority to attack the problem of black unemployment than quiet backroom negotiations.
“Congress — Washington must move from destruction and obstruction to the reconstruction of our economy,” Jackson said in his address at the Detroit rally. And Democrats in Congress have to do more to end the disproportionate impact of this nation’s ailing economy on its core constituency.
Coming as they do in an election year, the civil rights rallies have a greater potential to impact decision-making in Congress than Beck’s Lincoln Memorial appeal to the Tea Party movement. Sharpton and Jackson hope to use the momentum of their rallies to spur their supporters to the polls.
But if Democrats want this vote to hoist them into the winner’s circle — as it has done so often in the past — they must give blacks a compelling reason to do so.