Martin Luther King, Jr. has always been known for his powerful speeches. The feelings we have after listening to his iconic rhetoric is both influential and inspirational, often leaving us shaken to our core and igniting fires we didn’t know we had.
But many were surprised to hear his words used in Sunday night’s Super Bowl commercial even if intended to highlight volunteer efforts.
Late Sunday evening, as 98 percent of the country united against the New England Patriots, we also witnessed King’s “The Drum Major Instinct” sermon serve as a narration for Dodge’s “Built To Serve” ad with a connection to the their Ram Nation volunteer program. King says:
“If you want to be important — wonderful. If you want to be recognized —wonderful. If you want to be great — wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness. And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.”
On days like today, it is apparent why #ReclaimMLK remains to be such an important hashtag. Even in 2018, King’s message about the importance of service and civic engagement remains critical, but his views on anti-capitalism and economic justice for Black people shows that Dodge missed the mark in its commercial.
In his 1967 Southern Christian Leadership Conference speech, King noted, “The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism.” Without a doubt, the ethos of King — who was for equitable distribution of wealth and economic mobility for marginalized communities — goes against the very nature of Dodge’s ad. Throughout his life, the civil rights leader has not only made his anti-military views repeatedly clear but also his views on reparations and economic equalities.
Within hours, Current Affairs, a politics magazine, reedited the video overlaid with a different excerpt from the same speech. “We are so often taken by advertisers,” King says. “Those gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion. And they have a way of saying things to you that kind of get you in a bind.”
In the reedited video, King talks about the allure of corporatized mass marketing and advertising – the kind that makes us want to purchase an item that’s faster, better, and more elaborate just because we can.
“I am sad to say that the nation in which we live is the supreme culprit, and I’m going to continue to say it to America,” King concludes.
— Astead (@AsteadWesley) February 5, 2018
A divided King family
The Dodge commercial also highlights the continual infighting among the King family, who can’t seem to agree on how to handle King’s legacy. The King Center, the nonprofit established by his late wife Coretta Scott King and Bernice King, the youngest child of the civil rights leader, encouraged people to listen to the sermon “in its entirety.”
If they did, Bernice King implied, they would understand the inappropriateness, given the context, of using said speech in the commercial.
“Please listen to/read his speeches, sermons and writings. Understand his comprehensive teachings and his global perspective. Study his nonviolent philosophy. It’s more than a tactic,” she tweeted, providing a link to the sermon.
But as Bernice King and the King Center distanced themselves from the ad, the brothers got increasingly close. To be clear, Dodge can breathe easy on any allegations of lawsuits because the commercial received the approval of King’s voice by the MLK Estate itself.
The brand “worked closely with the representatives of the Martin Luther King Jr. estate to receive the necessary approvals,” a representative from Ram Trucks told Slate. “Estate representatives were a very important part of the creative process.”
This is representative of an ongoing chasm in the family and their inability to agree on matters concerning King’s image. In 2015, many items — the tomb, the sermons, the memorabilia — became the subject of a heated legal battle that put King’s children once again at odds.
Previously, there were also battles on who owned King’s Bible and Nobel Peace Prize medal. So, it isn’t that the internal conflict is new; it’s that it continues to highlight the greed of the King brothers, Dexter King and Martin Luther King III.
Make no mistake: they are intentionally choosing capitalism and profit over investing in the strongholding of their father’s legacy.
In his address “The Three Evils of Society,” King made clear that “The problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.” Hopefully Dexter and MLK III will think about this the next time they are picking profit over a man whose legacy was about uprooting capitalism as a daily practice.
Preston Mitchum is a Washington, DC-based writer, activist, and policy nerd. He is a regular contributor with theGrio and The Root and has written for the Atlantic, Slate, Think Progress, OUT Magazine, Ebony.com, and Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter here to see just how much he appreciates intersectionality.