British actress Olivia Williams with sabre fish.
We can’t be surprised by the right-wing ignorance about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the politics of the 1963 March on Washington. Today’s conservative leaders are the political descendants of the forces who fought the civil rights movement as a radical, most likely Communist plot. When the movement turned out to be wholesome and all-American, when a quarter of a million marchers descended on the capital without riots or violence 50 years ago, well, then, it had to be co-opted, it had to prove that America was living up to its highest principles, that those noble people were satisfied with what the system gave them — a Civil Rights bill and a Voting Rights bill — and they went home, and marched no more. Dr. King’s assassination five years later made it easier for them to do that.
There are so many ignorant right-wing reactions to this anniversary to talk about, but the award for the most vicious and stupid has to go to radio host Laura Ingraham, who insists that those of us who are commemorating the 50th anniversary of the march this week are trying “to co-opt the legacy of Martin Luther King into a modern-day liberal agenda.”
Actually, Ingraham is so wrong, she’s sort of right. Liberals did co-opt King’s radical, anti-corporate and antiwar agenda long ago. The King we commemorate today is a friendly shadow of his challenging, radical, visionary self. (Read Harold Meyerson on “The Socialists Who Made the March on Washington,” for a necessary corrective.)
But that’s not what the ignorant and vicious Ingraham was saying. She’s pretending King was some kind of conservative hero whose message of colorblindness – and that wasn’t his message at all – has been co-opted by liberal race-baiters and whiners and malcontents, who just won’t accept that Bobby Jindal is right when he talks about the “end of race,” because a first-generation Indian immigrant’s experience of racism is identical to that of people who were enslaved for hundreds of years, and he gets to decide when racism is over. Ingraham’s co-opting comment was just dumb. Typically dumb. What was unusually vicious, even for the often nasty radio host, was that she decided to interrupt an audio clip of the heroic Rep. John Lewis, the youngest person to speak at the march 50 years ago, speaking on Saturday, with the sound of a crackling gunshot.
A gunshot. After the assassinations of Medgar Evers, John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Dr. King, after the gunning down of so many civil rights workers over the years, Ingraham thought it was funny, or clever, or provocative, to “symbolically” cut off Lewis’ speech with the sound of a gun. The civil rights hero, who had his skull fractured on the first 1965 Selma march, falls silent in mid-sentence, as though he’d been hit by a sniper while addressing the crowd. (Listen to it on Media Matters; it’s more disturbing than you can imagine just reading about it.)
Lewis is in mid-speech, talking about the unfinished business of civil rights in America. “We must say to the Congress: fix the Voting Rights Act. We must say to the Congress: Pass comprehensive immigration reform. It doesn’t make sense that millions of our people …”
And then a shot rings out. Ingraham picks up what Lewis was saying. “OK. ‘It doesn’t make sense that millions of our people … are living in the shadows.’ They’re not only not living in the shadows, they’re appearing at the State of the Union speech. They’re actually visiting with the president in the White House. I think we have to drop that ‘living in the shadows’ thing. They might be standing on the street corner, but they’re not living in the shadows.”
Ingraham’s entitled to her opinion on immigration reform – she’s implacably against it, with her nativist buddy Pat Buchanan, who also appeared on the show – but I have to wonder why she chose to silence Lewis, symbolically at least, with a gunshot. It’s no coincidence she’s also an NRA mouthpiece whipping up fear that the government is coming for our guns. All of the white-grievance mongers are getting angrier, and their brew of pro-gun paranoia and white racial resentment is toxic. Ingraham should be ashamed of herself, but she’s just another rodeo clown, and she has no shame.
Joan Walsh is Salon's editor at large and the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America." More Joan Walsh.
British actress Olivia Williams with sabre fish.
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