Many across the country, including the family of Martin Luther King Jr., are outraged by a trend of using the slain civil rights leader’s image to promote parties held around his holiday.
Several flyers have surfaced in recent years. Most recently, one advertising a “Freedom 2 Twerk” dance party for teens in Flint, Michigan made a big splash on social media. The flyer featured King’s face digitally manipulated onto the body of rapper Young Jeezy – complete with tattoos and a large gold chain. When news of the event reached the owner of the venue where it was to be held, it was promptly cancelled.
The party in Flint wasn’t the first of its kind, however. There was the “4th Annual MLK Chocolate Affair” and “Bopping For Peace” parties last year. In 2012, a Miami strip club similarly made news with their “I Have a Dream Bash,” which they promoted with a flyer featuring an altered image of King holding wads of cash next to a scantily-clad woman.
“I feel like we have failed to reach these [groups],” Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr., said in an interview this week. “This imagery thing is just appalling, and it’s almost embarrassing. For me, as his daughter, it’s like ‘wow,’ I lost a father who sacrificed everything for them to live a much more dignified and respectful life, and for it to come to this makes me sad.”
A man associated with the event told reporters he meant “no disrespect” with the flyer. Still, many others say the use of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s image in such a manner trivializes his legacy and the seriousness of the causes for which he fought.
“I think it’s pretty distasteful to put Martin Luther King’s image on a flyer but I’ve definitely seen it done many times,” says Brandon Smith, founder of Seattle Social, a Washington events promotion company. “I personally think most club flyers are distasteful and have this discussion all the time. They usually show some scantily-clad, overly-Photoshopped model that has nothing to do with the event or company.”
Smith adds that money and attention are the main motivators for most event organizers. “It’s MLK weekend so they put MLK on the flyer. Most promoters probably don’t think about it being disrespectful when they’re making them,” he says.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was created in 1983 when, after considerable opposition, President Ronald Reagan signed it into law. The holiday is observed on the third Monday in January, around King’s birthday on January 15, and is typically used as a day to honor King’s legacy and contribution to the area of civil rights. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was officially observed in all 50 states for the first time in 2000. Only two other individuals have national holidays in the United States honoring them: George Washington and Christopher Columbus. In 1994, Congress designated Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a national day of service.
R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy is an assistant professor of sociology and black studies at the City College of New York. He says the trend of using King on flyers points to a much greater issue: the commodification of the civil rights leader’s image in popular culture, something he says was in the works long before there was an official holiday.
“We have a moment in time now where Dr. King’s legacy has been so sanitized and commodified that he’s become a symbol,” says Lewis-McCoy. “We haven’t given a full, honest telling of his legacy. Now nearly 50 years later, we have images of Dr. King that are simply symbols being used to attract attention. That’s because we haven’t engaged in the politics.”
Lewis-McCoy says the packaging of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as “day on, not a day off” is but one example.
“I think treating it as a day of service is wonderful thing to do, though it’s not a requirement,” he says. “Dr. King was a champion of laborers and also understood the need for workers to be able to rest. We have to remember that and also think about service in terms of the change that Dr. King sought. One Monday out of a year is fine if that’s all you’re able to do, but change happens through sustained service.”
One place where King’s legacy is still actively discussed and engaged is his alma mater, Morehouse College. At Morehouse, students are currently planning service projects to commemorate the holiday.
Morehouse Student Government Association President Anthony J. Simonton says that even with all of the attention surrounding the flyers, it’s important to note that many young people still honor King’s contribution.
“A lot of young people are aware of the sacrifices that Dr. King and many others made, especially on our campus,” says the senior political science major. “We get that these were people who went to jail, had dogs sicced on them and more for our rights. We take it very seriously. Here, we honor Dr. King by living out his message of attending to the vulnerable and working toward equality. That’s still the goal and what the holiday is about for many.”
Follow Donovan X. Ramsey at @iDXR