The Media's March on Washington legacy: A struggle to co-opt the universal admiration of Dr. King's movement
The most amazing and overlooked aspect of today’s commemoration of the March on Washington is how universally admired the event is today.
All the major news networks have announced plans to cover President Obama’s speech to the nation this afternoon. Regular programming will be shunted aside for a deluge of reports reflecting on the March’s significance and the towering impact of its most-remembered speaker, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (See highlights by clicking here.)
Cable news has been drowning in March coverage for at least a week, with MSNBC wrapping its effort around its in-house civil rights activist star, anchor Rev. Al Sharpton. Meanwhile, his ideological opponents on Fox News Channel have offered their own thoughts, from Bill O’Reilly carping on the disintegration of the black family to Sean Hannity asking if race relations have actually improved in this country.
All of this media jockeying among the punditocracy is focused on a single goal: Claiming the beloved status and almost universal admiration for Dr. King’s civil rights movement.
I wonder if the good Doctor himself wouldn’t be surprised and amused by the irony. In his time, Dr. King was accused of being a Communist, a subversive, an unpatriotic malcontent and much worse – and not just by serious bigots. Even some black people wondered if his efforts to end segregation, push for economic equality and demand equal voting rights wasn’t a step too far.
Now, in the cozy warmth of hindsight, it’s easy to forget how it took decades to even convince America to make Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday.
But we love to look back on historical events where the country eventually made the right decision. And in a recent history marred by Vietnam, Iran-Contra, the Iraq invasion and many more morally ambiguous adventures, the moment when a record number of black and white people came together in resisting racial oppression stands as a pretty admirable milestone.
So it’s no wonder pundits and activists of all political stripes now seek to redirect that admiration to serve their own message, assuring followers that their point of view is the one Dr. King would endorse had he survived an assassin’s bullet in 1968.
All sides aren’t equal in this. Conservative pundits arguing that America offers an essentially equal playing field or that there’s a “reverse racism” as work in the U.S. where race-based oppression of white people is ignored are living in a fantasy world no credible modern civil rights leader would validate.
In a country of 300 million people, it’s easy to cherry-pick crimes in which black people victimize white people. But the larger concern is how institutions in America treat different kinds of people. It’s one thing when three black kids beat up a white kid on a bus – because he ratted on their drug dealing to school administrators, by the way, not because of race – and quite another when police stop and frisk huge numbers of black and brown people in their own neighborhoods to find an astonishingly small amount of weapons.
(It’s been oddly amusing to see some of the same conservative pundits who get apoplectic about pat downs in airport security lines heartily endorse racially-centered stop and frisk policies. Why, then, don’t they support a national gun registry to catch the people sidestepping gun laws to gain illegal possession of firearms, even if they are a small number of gun owners?)
That said, I think the way in which a tiny handful of leaders have become the only voices who can get media coverage and leverage the world’s attention on civil rights issues is another sad legacy of the movement.
Sharpton has built his personal brand into a mini media empire, with a daily radio show and a major cable newschannel willing to bend its coverage to highlight his efforts. It doesn’t matter that I mostly agree with his stands on civil rights issues; I think tying activism efforts to personal brands is a serious mistake. It becomes too difficult to separate personal glory from the work and encourages too many people to see events as an exercise in celebrity worship instead of a call to action.
Still, I loved the atmosphere of the March commemoration in Washington D.C. Saturday. The crowd was energized by joining so many other people interested in social and racial justice, treating each other largely with love and respect to honor the day.
In my book, Race-Baiter, I talk about how researchers from Yale and Stanford universities developed a study in 2006 to look at how black and white people judge racial progress. They found white people tend to compare present situations with the past and black people tend to compare present situations with future goals. See my TEDx talk on those issues by clicking here.
Moving forward, I think fostering a cross-racial dialogue on race filled with facts and free from demagoguery is a crucial goal for fair-minded media.
Preaching to the choir in ideologically isolated settings will help no one. We need to develop ways to help the underclass in America, while recognizing that the struggles of poor people of color have their own unique challenges. And we need a news media filled with honest brokers ready to make this a reality.
I guess I have a dream, too. I wonder if today’s media is up to the challenge of fulfilling it?