What Glenn Beck Gets Wrong: How he Misunderstands Martin Luther King, Jr.
Glenn Beck, as even Jon Stewart admitted in his TV interview with Bill O’Reilly, is a talented guy. A week ago, I reviewed and praised Beck’s first documentary on Communism, although I did note a few shortcomings. I have also given him credit for his role in bringing to light the appointment by the Obama administration of people like Van Jones, who largely because of the exposure Beck gave to Jones’ largely unknown Communist views and belief in a 9/11 conspiracy theory, was forced by the administration to resign from his position as the “green jobs czar.”
But when it comes to history, Beck’s limitations are revealed. He often claims that he will admit to errors when he gets something wrong. I’d like to take him up on it.
On January 21st, Beck spoke on his radio program about the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Until this time, Beck, like most other Americans, considered King a great American hero, and honored him on his birthday. This is not surprising. King, through his leadership of the civil rights movement and his adherence to non-violence, pushed our nation to fulfill its democratic promise to all citizens. King mobilized thousands of black citizens to peacefully demonstrate, in the face of brutal force employed by racist Southern law enforcement agencies. TV viewers of the time saw -- as did all of Europe as well as those who lived in the Soviet Union and its satellite states -- how the movement faced the violence imposed upon them by the likes of Sheriff Bull Connor, who used dogs and police hoses to try to disperse the non-violent demonstrators.
The nation also saw the dignity and strength of the Montgomery Bus Boycott that propelled King onto the national stage, and later, the principled opposition King voiced to the extremist radicals on his left, including Malcom X, Stokely Carmichael and other black nationalists and revolutionaries who regularly branded King as a sell-out.
But this past January, Beck heard NAACP Chairman Julian Bond -- the leader of SNCC during the period when it expelled white activists from its ranks and ousted moderates like now Congressman John Lewis from its leadership -- say on an NPR radio interview that people forget that King was “a critic of capitalism” and favored what Bond said was a “modified form of socialism.” Beck played this section of Bond’s interview:
"We don't remember the Martin Luther King who talked ceaselessly about taking care of the masses and not just dealing with the people at the top of the ladder. So we've kind of anesthetized him. We've made him into a different kind of person than he actually was in life. And it may be that that's one reason he's so celebrated today because we celebrate a different kind of man than really existed. But he was a bit more radical. Not terribly, terribly radical but a bit more radical than we make him out to be today."
Beck, it appears, was aghast and shocked. “Correct me if I’m wrong, America,” he stated. “But I didn’t think it was politically correct…to say that Martin Luther King was a socialist.” He then went on to say, and I put this in highlighted form: “I believe this is the first time I've ever heard this from someone, you know, on the side of praising Dr. Martin Luther King. I've heard people say, oh, well, you know, he was a communist, he was a socialist.”
We must first digress with a brief history lesson. Actually, what J. Edgar Hoover accused King of was not that he was a communist, but that he was ignoring what he saw as a main danger: that the civil rights movement was a key target for communist subversion. And as the FBI’s historian Richard Gid Powers writes, Hoover was “deaf to calls for racial justice.” As King rose to leadership of the movement, Hoover learned that one of King’s top advisors was an attorney named Stanley Levison, who had been in the 1950’ the major financial chief of the American Communist Party. It was Levison’s ties with King that became Hoover’s pretext for his now well known persecution and slander of King. Levison, in fact, was no longer a Communist. But the Bureau also learned that King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) had hired one Jack O’Dell as head of its New York office. O’Dell was in fact most likely still an active member of the CPUSA.
These accusations were then used by the FBI to try and discredit King’s moral leadership (they also leaked news of the tapes proving King’s sexual infidelities). That knowledge was passed on to King by Bobby Kennedy, who advised King it was best that he remove Levison from his organization in order that Levison’s former CP membership did not compromise the civil rights movement. King reluctantly fired him.
Yet what Hoover and his agents objected to, and saw as dangerous, was the civil rights movement itself. As one of Hoover’s top aides, William C. Sullivan, wrote to the Director, King’s “I Have a Dream” speech -- the very one all Americans today justly celebrate -- showed King to be “the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security.” The speech in which King uttered the famous words about judging a person by the “content of his character” and not the color of his skin, was termed “demagogic” by Sullivan. This agent, Sullivan, became the person in the Bureau who led its campaign to discredit King, disrupt his movement, and destroy King personally.
Yet after hearing Bond’s remarks, Beck was incredulous. There must be a reason why Julian Bond would say such a thing on the week of King’s birthday celebration, Beck thought. Beck and his associate Pat began to speculate. First it had to do with Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts, when “radical socialism is discredited.” But the real purpose behind Bond’s claim that King was a socialist was that if we celebrate King and King is good, and we learn that King was a socialist, it means that socialism is fine for America. Hence since Obama is both black and a socialist, there is nothing wrong with him also having a socialist agenda just like King. Here are Beck’s exact words:
"I think this is probably a more likely scenario that the president is under fire and we know that a radicalized socialist is a label that is going to be attached to this president and so we want to show you that a radicalized socialist is Martin Luther King and it's okay."
Beck often denies that he believes in conspiracy theories. He has in fact denied some major ones that are popular on both the left and the light. But here, he has definitely put forth one of his own: Julian Bond spoke about King’s belief in socialism to make Obama’s socialist agenda acceptable. Beck goes on to argue that this “icon” America has created, whom we say has “combined George Washington and Abraham Lincoln,” is probably being falsely portrayed as a socialist. King, he said, in reality “didn’t exist that way. He was different than that.”
Beck then explains:
"I don't know when it became politically okay to say that Martin Luther King was a radical socialist. You wouldn't even say that about President Obama. If I got on the air and said the guy is a radical socialist, which I do, they hammer me to death! Well, if it's okay that Martin Luther King was a radical socialist, why is it bad to say Barack Obama is a radical socialist? Am I reading this wrong?"
But Bond was not saying anything was wrong with King, only stating a fact. And it was King himself, as we shall see, who made it clear numerous times that he did see himself as some kind of a socialist. And even if Beck and others say Obama is a socialist, the President himself continually says he is not ideological and is a pragmatist. Beck, however, sees this as an attempt to legitimize Obama’s socialism by suddenly praising King as a socialist. For Beck, it was not, as some might think, a fact that simply came to Bond’s mind during a radio interview. It was part of a conscious plan, in which Bond was speaking for the Obama administration.
Finally, Beck sees what he thinks the left is attempting with this sudden proclamation. (Keep in mind that all we have is one statement in an interview with Julian Bond, not a barrage of similar statements, especially from the administration.) What the left is trying to do, he argues, is not “let this one slide. They may pretend they are being more moderate,” but if “they are using Martin Luther King as a radical socialist icon, they are not going to back away from socialism.” So Bond’s announcement was clearly meant to legitimize socialism and announce to the world the Obama administration’s own socialist program! And if this is the case, Beck wonders, would King’s birthday ever have been made a national holiday, if the news that King was a socialist had come out? When, Beck adds, did socialism “become acceptable in America?” and hence when “did it become okay and expect us to celebrate [King Day] today”?
It is clear that when he talks about King and socialism, Beck does not know very much about this subject. First, Julian Bond was completely accurate in his statement, and nothing he said is false or, even more important, new. All one has to do is to read David Garrow’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography of King, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King. Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was published in 1987, and in a new paper edition in 2004.
Among other things you will find in this superb biograph, is the following. Speaking in Selma, Alabama, King said:
"Call it what you may, call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God’s children."
At another time, he added:
"Obviously we’ve got to have some form of socialism, but America’s not ready to hear it yet."
Near the end of his life, talking to Operation Breadbasket, King asked that those listening to him turn off their tape recorders. Referring to his belief in democratic socialism, King told the group: “I can’t say this publicly, and if you say I said it I’m not gonna admit to it.” He went on to say that, as someone there reported, “he didn’t believe that capitalism could meet the needs of poor people, ‘and that what we might need to look at was a kind of socialism, but a democratic form of socialism.’”
As for Marx, King said he thought Marx “had a great passion for social justice,” but had fallen afoul of materialism and was not spiritual enough. Yet he was thankful that Marx thought that “class issues had to be raised.” He then added: “Something is wrong with the economic system of our nation … something is wrong with capitalism.” America, he thought, did not have to be “Communist or Marxist,” but yet it needed a more equitable distribution of wealth. And yes, he did say in prison to Bond : “If we are going to achieve real equality, the United States will have to adopt a modified form of socialism.”
This is history, like it or not. One is free to disagree with King’s largely privately held socialist views. Most Americans rejected that philosophy at the time, which is why King asked his followers not to tape him, and when he did make public statements, as he did surprisingly in Selma, they were few and far between. King knew that his role was that of a leader of the broad civil rights movement, and that is why the nation celebrates his birthday. We honor King for his heroic and brave leadership of the non-violent movement for civil rights. That King also believed in some moderate form of socialism does not discredit his leadership on behalf of civil rights.
Moreover, all students of the movement know that King followed in the footsteps of the old socialist trade union leader, A. Philip Randolph. Randolph led the Pullman Porters union, and chaired the 1963 March on Washington. He had been instrumental for decades in the fight, indeed all through the FDR years, when he fought the Roosevelt administration and forced the President to reluctantly create a civil rights commission.
Randolph’s chief aide, who ran the Marc, and who became King’s single most important advisor, was the social-democrat Bayard Rustin. It was Rustin who educated King about Ghandi’s philosophy of non-violence, and who taught him how to organize and run a mass movement. When Rustin first visited King at home at the very start of the movement, he found that the preacher had a gun in his home for protection. Rustin told him that if he was to lead and create a successful movement, it had to be non-violent and its leader could not have a gun, even if it meant his own home was less secure. Rustin also believed fiercely in the anti-Communist cause, and supported American power on behalf of freedom. He held no love for the Viet Cong, and advised King strongly not to publicly oppose the war. (King ignored that advice.)
So I ask Glenn Beck the following: Now that you know that Bond was accurate and that King’s moderate socialist beliefs are no secret, do you really think that Bond’s statement is part of a plot to legitimize Obama’s socialist agenda? Do you think that King’s more or less private sentiments regarding socialism mean that he does not deserve to be honored for his courageous stand and leadership in the movement for civil rights? Shouldn’t we try to live in the real world amidst shades of grey?