WASHINGTON (AP) – In a highly contentious public event, a popular but polarizing right wing broadcaster is sponsoring a rally Saturday at the same place and on the exact date that the country's pre-eminent civil rights figure delivered his most famous speech.
Rally organizer Glenn Beck, who speaks to a faithful audience nightly on conservative Fox News television and daily on talk radio, is known for his extreme views and statements. He has described President Barack Obama, the first black U.S. president, as a racist.
Two months before nationwide Congressional elections, which could cost Obama's Democrats their majority in the House of Representatives and perhaps the Senate as well, Beck's rally becomes only the latest symptom of rampant political partisanship that is splitting the country and drowning out voices of moderation.
The broadcaster, who promotes what he calls Christian faith-based patriotism, will be joined by Sarah Palin, who was Sen. John McCain's vice presidential running mate in their failed White House campaign against Obama two years ago.
She subsequently quit her job as governor of Alaska in the middle of her first term to launch a successful bid to become the nation's foremost conservative voice, de facto spokeswoman for the ultraconservative tea party movement.
The Beck event website says the "Restoring Honor'' rally is to pay tribute to America's military personnel and others "who embody our nation's founding principles of integrity, truth and honor.'' It urges citizens to attend and "help us restore the values that founded this great nation.''
The rally will take place on the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic speech at a critical point in black Americans' struggle for civil rights and equality under the law.
"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,'' King told a massive audience that jammed the National Mall below the memorial to Abraham Lincoln on Aug. 28, 1963.
King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, five years later.
Lincoln was the 16th U.S. president, commander in chief of northern federal forces when the Civil War broke out a century and a half ago. During the war, he issued the emancipation proclamation, which outlawed slavery in the southern states, which had seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America.
While Beck says the date of the rally is only coincidental, he calls it one of "divine providence.''
Critics on the left are in an uproar. The rally has dominated evening talk programs on the liberal MSNBC cable television network and like-thinking progressive radio stations.
Jess Levin, a spokesman for the liberal Media Matters for America, an organization that has targeted Beck and Fox News Channel, said the gathering at the Lincoln Memorial was about nothing more than "promoting Beck's political agenda.''
The Rev. Al Sharpton, a powerful spokesman for the black community, who has become a more moderate voice after his radical days in decades past, was to lead an annual commemoration of the King speech at a high school some distance away.
Sharpton's National Action Network plans a "Reclaim the Dream'' rally, which focuses on education, that will feature Education Secretary Arne Duncan, National Urban League president Marc Morial and Martin Luther King III, the slain King's son.
Organizers plan a march to the site of a proposed statue of King near the Lincoln memorial, which will bring participants in both events near to one another.
"This is going to be an iconic event,'' Beck says. "This is going to be a moment that you will never be able to paint people as haters, racists, none of it. This is a moment, quite honestly, that I think we reclaim the civil rights movement. It has been so distorted and so turned upside down. It is an abomination.''
Critics scoffed at Beck's claim the rally would not be political. "When we heard about Glenn Beck, it was puzzling,'' Sharpton said. "Because if you read Dr. King's speech, it just doesn't gel with what Mr. Beck or Mrs. Palin are representing.''
Beck has called Obama "a guy who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.''
"I'm not saying he doesn't like white people. I'm saying he has a problem,'' Beck said. "This guy is, I believe, a racist.''
Palin has defended radio personality Laura Schlessinger, who announced this month she was ending her "Dr. Laura'' program after using a racial epithet repeatedly on the air during a discussion with a black caller about racism.
In an opinion piece for The Washington Post, King's son drew a contrast between Beck's right to call a rally and the political and racial beliefs of those expected to attend.
"My father championed free speech. He would be the first to say that those participating in Beck's rally have the right to express their views,'' King wrote. "But his dream rejected hateful rhetoric and all forms of bigotry or discrimination, whether directed at race, faith, nationality, sexual orientation or political beliefs.''
Organizers of the Beck rally advise attendees not to bring signs, "as they may deter from the peaceful message we are bringing to Washington.''
Signs at some tea party events have included pictures of Obama embellished with a Hitler-style mustache, racial epithets and threats to Democratic officials. They gave tea party critics grounds to claim the loose organization of activists was motivated by racism against Obama.