Chris Wallace Gets It Wrong

by Abigail Thernstrom

Oh dear, I am such a fan of Chris Wallace. But, in questioning Glenn Beck this morning on Fox News Sunday, he mangled an important bit of American history. Not that Beck was much better, but I wouldn’t expect him to be.

Beck correctly described the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and early1960s as all about “equal justice.” The core of the crusade led by Martin Luther King, Jr., and of the NAACP’s legal assault on Jim Crow, was a call for color-blind treatment. Judging people by the content of their character and all that.

By 1967, it is true, King had turned his attention to quite a different cause: a Poor People’s Campaign. In 1968 he had come to Memphis to support striking black sanitation workers, and it was in Memphis, of course, that he was assassinated. His voice was thus horribly silenced at the tragically young age of thirty-nine; we do not know what path he would have taken had he lived to see the doors of racial opportunity open so dramatically in subsequent years.

On this morning’s program, Chris Wallace spoke as if the Poor People’s Campaign was the logical culmination of King’s entire life. And he declared that “the civil rights movement was always about an economic agenda.” Chris, no. This grossly oversimplifies a complex story. Thurgood Marshall was not pursuing “an economic agenda” when he argued Brown v. Board.  By the time of King’s death, many who identified themselves as civil-rights crusaders were pushing for Black Power, not a fundamentally economic objective and certainly not an effort at building a coalition of poor blacks and poor whites.

And as we fumble our way towards King’s dream — with no help from the president — it’s important to remember what the movement that culminated in the great civil rights statutes of 1964 and 1965 stood for. Not equality of condition — as that notion has come to be understood — but equality of opportunity, open doors, a level playing field, blacks and whites treated equally under the law.

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