Dr. Martin Luther King’s popularity has surged this year—not just because of the yearly festival of remembering him on his birthday, nor the implications of his legacy on the Black Lives Matter Movement—but because his words and image are misconstrued for a variety of purposes.
Doing so takes his words out of context, obscures his social platforms, muddles his image for a contemporary audience, and distracts from what should be a year of commemoration.
At the first of the year, Newsweek welcomed the new year with a tweet that included a photograph of Dr. King in his casket. Apparently, the goal was to highlight the milestones in 2018, which include the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. King’s murder. The caption is “Has anybody here seen my old friend Martin?” a quote from the song “Abraham, Martin, and John” which is a song Dick Holler wrote in 1968 to remember these youthful men who were killed while working toward social change.
Reverend Bernice King, Dr. King’s youngest child, replied with a succinct tweet “Why @Newsweek? Wow” and prompting Newsweek to remove the image. She accepted Newsweek’s apology, and released more extensive commentary on social media: Dr. King “was a husband and was a father so we deal all the time just with continuing to manage our father and the great work that he’s done…so it was difficult”. Bernice King was only five years old at the time of his death. To relive her father’s assassination in such an insensitive way must be incredibly painful.
By invoking what should be a private picture, Newsweek failed to realize that he was indeed a husband and father, and this intimate picture of him in his casket should be used with permission, if at all. Many Twitter users picked up on this and criticized Newsweek’s insensitivity. The magazine’s action raises questions of why they used Dr. King’s image in the first place, in a teaser about this year’s milestones, and why they could not have used any of the hundreds of pictures taken of Dr. King while he was alive?
Newsweek used his image selfishly to get likes and retweets, thus generating buzz about the milestones from this year. Instead, what they accomplished was a misappropriation of Dr. King’s dead body. We should not be surprised: according to poet Claudia Rankine’s article on Black bodies in America, “We live in a country where Americans assimilate corpses in their daily comings and goings. Dead blacks are a part of normal life here.” Newsweek tapped into this normalcy by using Dr. King’s picture out of context, at a time when we are painfully aware of the ways in which dead black bodies circulate due to the ubiquity of cameras and social media.
A few weeks later, Planned Parenthood continued to remove Dr. King’s words out of context. To mark his birthday on January 15th, this organization tweeted a picture of Dr. King with the word “dream” in the background. Under his image was the message “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dedicated his life to the idea that racial and economic justice are foundational to our democracy. Today, we honor his courageous vision and radical action — and commit to furthering his dream by continuing the fight for justice.” Many Twitter users instantly highlighted the irony in this tweet, considering Planned Parenthood’s founder, Margaret Sanger, supported eugenics.
Dr. King’s niece, Alveda King, cited her uncle’s words to carry out her position: “The Negro cannot win if he is willing to sacrifice the futures of his children for immediate personal comfort and safety.” She continued by saying, “abortion, of course, forces us to do exactly that.” Yet like Newsweek, Planned Parenthood used Dr. King’s image and appropriated his words to support their own agenda. Abortion is not a civil rights issue, but Planned Parenthood makes it one by “continuing the fight for justice” as though Dr. King fought for this. At least in Planned Parenthood’s message, he was still alive.
Perhaps the co-opting that most of us witnessed occurred during this year’s Super Bowl. On February 4, 1968, Dr. King delivered his Drum Major Instinct sermon in Atlanta; fifty years hence on Super Bowl Sunday 2018, Ram Trucks, owned by Chrysler invoked from this powerful sermon to sell trucks. Ram’s motto is “Built to Serve” and they used the part of his speech where he defined greatness as the ability to serve: “by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great. 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 don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, [and] a soul generated by love.”
Almost immediately, Ram Trucks faced backlash for invoking Dr. King to advance their capitalist goals, which is incredibly tone-deaf given the contexts of his sermon and of race today. In the sermon, he explained that people overspend on cars in a futile attempt to prove their greatness. In a similar vein, he questioned why people “are so often taken by advertisers.”
Of course, this ad appeared during the most important football game of the year, at a time when players kneeling during the national anthem to protest the same problems Dr. King protested face backlash over their form of nonviolent protest. Even Donald Trump criticized the players, while the NFL has remained passive and reticent in regards to race relations. Nevermind that most NFL players are black and most of the coaches and owners are white – none of this seemed relevant in an advertisement to sell trucks, using words by a man who could care less about what people drive.
Because trucks are “built to serve,” King’s work and service were paralleled since he defined greatness as being able to serve. If they excerpted a little further from the sermon, we would have heard that serving meant serving our people and helping humanity. Yet they took his words grossly out of context, thus obscuring what he really stood for. At the end of this very same sermon that Ram butchered, Dr. King discussed his death, which would occur exactly two months after he delivered it. In a chilling and prescient denouement, Dr. King indicated that his eulogy should not include his many accomplishments, such as his education or his Nobel Peace Prize, nor should they include references to money or material things he left behind, since “shallow things will not matter.” Instead, he wanted to be remember as “a drum major for justice…a drum major for peace…[and] a drum major for righteousness” for all that he did to serve humanity.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. told us how he wanted to be remembered in his Drum Major Instinct sermon. Instead of heeding, we often fall into empty platitudes about him, while big organizations usurp his ideas and words for their own purposes. He did not advocate for purchasing trucks or Planned Parenthood, but for the ability for African Americans to be treated equally, given the hundred years that passed between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. The most succinct appraisal of Dr. King appears in Michael Eric Dyson’s book Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America. In it, Dyson summarizes a few of Dr. King’s important beliefs in a sermon, calling him “the most quoted Black man on the planet.”
That he is quoted is not the problem; instead “his words get plucked from their original contexts, his ideas twisted beyond recognition. America has washed the grit from his rhetoric.” As we celebrate him fifty years after his demise, it is important to remember that he lived up to his words as a “drum major” for humanity, evidenced by the fact that he was assassinated while advocating for equality—he was murdered although he preached peace and nonviolence to attain his goals. We must stop twisting his rhetoric beyond recognition and live up to the standards that he set for himself and for us all.