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King's legacy debated before Beck march

The Lincoln Memorial -- and the rest of the Mall -- is a popular site for protests and rallies. Here are some noteworthy ones that show how hard it is to measure the size of a protesting crowd. With Glenn Beck's Saturday rally, it's best to be wary of estimates.

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By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 27, 2010; 11:58 PM

In the collective memory of many Americans, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s life is frozen in time in a single moment 47 years ago on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

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People of all political ideologies say they draw inspiration from the "dream" he described that day - that children might be judged not "by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

The rally that conservative commentator Glenn Beck is holding on those same steps Saturday, the anniversary of the speech, has reignited long-simmering debates over what King stood for and who the rightful heirs to his legacy are.

Beck, who says King's message has been distorted, has described the rally, in part, as an opportunity to "pick up Martin Luther King's dream" and to "restore it and to finish it." Beck's critics accuse him of hijacking the "dream" for partisan political gain.

According to historians, the invocation of King by admirers across the political spectrum - in good faith and sometimes not - began almost as soon as he died five years after the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

His funeral in Atlanta was attended by people who had not supported his cause but wanted to be associated with him after his death, said Clayborne Carson, a King scholar and historian at Stanford University.

Many people in public life claim to have marched with King at one time or another - and Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and Republican presidential candidate, once had to retract a claim that his father, who supported King's views, had done so.

Politicians of every stripe have found in King's works authority for their positions. Liberals see in his words support for affirmative action. A group of black conservatives has funded an ad campaign arguing that King was a Republican.

In 2008, Barack Obama quoted from the dream speech when he accepted the Democratic presidential nomination on the anniversary of the march. Two decades earlier, conservative author Shelby Steele used a fragment from the speech as the title of his anti-affirmative action book, "The Content of Our Character."

"Once he was gone, he became a convenient hero because then you could see him as someone who had raised some criticism about American society, but we, as Americans, had taken care of those flaws," Carson said. "By celebrating him, we could celebrate ourselves, and we don't have him to be the continuing critic."

'Divine providence'

Beck has said that he did not intentionally schedule his Restoring Honor rally on the anniversary of the speech but that he considers the timing "divine providence." A niece of King's has been an occasional guest on Beck's show on Fox News and will speak at the rally, which he expects to draw as many as 100,000 people.

Beck, an opponent of affirmative action and universal health care, has said King's message has been "massively perverted." He recently aired a clip of the Rev. Al Sharpton saying that the dream "was not for one black man in the White House. The dream was to make everything equal in everybody's house."


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