Wallace and Beck: A Clarification

by Abigail Thernstrom

A number of people have e-mailed me a bit confused by my argument in “Chris Wallace Gets It Wrong.” They correctly point out that I focused on Chris Wallace and failed to explain where Glenn Beck went wrong on Fox News Sunday.

As I should have made clearer, both Beck and Wallace were mistaken in different ways. Beck failed to recognize the increasing complexity of the civil-rights movement. He seemed to believe all participants had the same consistent, unwavering goal: treating people equally without respect to race.

But as early as 1965, SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) had rejected the drive for integration and thrown whites out of the organization. It was SNCC that, in the summer of 1964, had led the courageous campaign for black voting rights in Mississippi, where three young volunteers — Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Cheney — were murdered. A year later, Goodman and Schwerner, both white, would not have been welcome in the organization.

As for King, in 1967 (a year before he was assassinated), he had begun to lead a Poor People’s Campaign, which focused on economic equality. That focus was consistent with his long-held private belief in some vague form of democratic socialism. Moreover, by then, “civil rights” groups included a great many Black Power advocates with a voice very different from King’s public stance in the early years. These advocates celebrated Malcolm X far more than Martin Luther King Jr.

In short, in the earlier years, King argued in the public arena for a color-blind society, and it is that commitment for which we honor him. The socialist elements in his private thinking are a separate story.

In different ways, then, both Beck and Wallace embraced too crude a version of civil-rights history in the 1950s and 1960s.