When Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and told the world that he had a dream, it probably didn't involve anything like this.
Today, on the 47th anniversary of Dr King's historic speech, tens of thousands of conservative activists will gather at exactly the same spot for the "Tea Party" movement's latest public show of strength.
The Restoring Honour rally has been officially billed as a "non-political event" which will simply celebrate the military personnel "who embody our founding principles of integrity, truth and honour". But like so much of the daily discourse in an increasingly polarised nation, it seems unlikely to advance very much except the eclectic agenda of the religious right.
It doesn't help, of course, that the event is being organised by Glenn Beck, the conservative talk-show host who once called Barack Obama a "racist" with "a deep-seated hatred for white people" and has described the rally as a "historic" successor to Dr King's speech. Neither will the fact that the former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin is due to be headline speaker add much to the supposedly apolitical nature of proceedings.
Given that the vast majority of the 100,000 predicted attendees will be white, and given the Tea Party movement's shaky record on race relations – one of its founders recently resigned after he wrote a blog that described "coloureds" as lazy – the timing of the rally has been widely, and predictably, condemned by civil rights groups.
Some have pledged to organise counter-demonstrations, describing the nature of the event as provocative rather than simply inappropriate. Others have accused the organisers of attempting to dishonour Dr King, who is these days regarded as a national hero, with a public holiday in his memory.
"The Tea Party and allied conservatives are trying to break that national stance on justice and, in turn, break the crux of what the civil rights movement symbolized and what Dr King fought and literally died for," said the Reverend Al Sharpton, a leading rights activist, in a statement.
Beck, an excitable figure whose public appeal may very well lie in the fact that he is prone to overstatement, is positively relishing the attention. All week he's been using his radio programme and daily show on Rupert Murdoch's right-leaning Fox News channel to describe the rally, without a hint of irony, as "the turning point in the American experiment."
In an effort to appease critics, Beck has arranged to position his podium significantly lower on the steps of the Memorial than the spot from which Dr King's "I have a dream" speech was delivered. And he claims the event will celebrate the values of the civil rights movement: "Whites don't own Abraham Lincoln. Blacks don't own Martin Luther King," he said.
Attendees have been told not to bring banners or placards, so as to avoid cameras catching sight of racially-insensitive sensitive slogans about President Obama, which have led to criticism of other Tea Party events. They have also been told to leave firearms at home.Reuse content