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Dr. Harry Edwards: It’s Despicable for Dodge to Use MLK’s Words to Peddle Trucks During Super Bowl

Web ExclusiveFebruary 05, 2018
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The Philadelphia Eagles beat the New England Patriots Sunday night in Minneapolis with a 41-to-33 win in Super Bowl LII, the first-ever title for the Eagles. The upset capped a historic year of racial justice protests across the league, with players kneeling during the national anthem to demand justice and an end to police brutality. One of the most controversial ads during Sunday night’s Super Bowl involved carmaker Dodge using the audio of a Martin Luther King Jr. speech to sell Ram trucks. For more on the controversy and the history of racial justice protests in professional sports, we speak with Dr. Harry Edwards, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of several books, including “The Revolt of the Black Athlete,” reissued last year for its 50th anniversary edition. He was the architect of the 1968 Olympic Project for Human Rights. He is a longtime staff consultant with the San Francisco 49ers.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, as we continue with Part 2 of our conversation with Dr. Harry Edwards, the architect of the Olympic Project for Human Rights in 1968, the famous Black Power salute in Mexico City, and longtime consultant to the San Francisco 49ers.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, on Sunday night, the Philadelphia Eagles stunned the sports world by beating the New England Patriots in Minneapolis with a 41-to-33 win in Super Bowl LII, the first-ever Super Bowl title for the Eagles. The game capped an historic season for the National Football League, in which African-American players staged league-wide protests against racial injustice and police brutality by taking the knee during the national anthem before games.

Well, Dodge, the automobile maker, is receiving criticism for a Super Bowl ad that used a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. to pitch its Ram trucks. Exactly 50 years to the day before yesterday’s Super Bowl, on February 4th, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. preached his “The Drum Major Instinct” sermon from the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church. The sermon is mostly remembered for the way King concluded it, by imagining his own funeral, downplaying his famous achievements and saying, quote, “If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice.” The Dodge commercial featured a different part of the speech, while video included U.S. marines, ranchers and a soldier wearing camouflage, played over King’s voice.

REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: 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. … 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 the 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, soul generated by love.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, in that same speech that Dodge used, Dr. Martin Luther King warned the drum major instinct is a desire to be important and seek recognition, which advertisers take advantage of.

REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: Now, the presence of this instinct explains why we are so often taken by advertisers—you know, those gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion. And they have a way of saying things to you that kind of gets you into buying. In order to be a man of distinction, you must drink this whiskey. In order to make your neighbors envious, you must drive this type of car.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Make it plain.

REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: In order to be lovely to love, you must wear this kind of lipstick or this kind of perfume. And, you know, before you know it, you’re just buying that stuff. That’s the way the advertisers do it. … It often causes us to live above our means.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Make it plain. Make it plain.

REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: It’s nothing but the drum major instinct. Do you ever see people buy cars that they can’t even begin to buy in terms of their income?

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Amen!

REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: You’ve seen people riding around in Cadillacs and Chryslers who don’t earn enough to have a good T-Model Ford.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Make it plain. Make it plain.

REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: But it feeds a repressed ego.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Dr. King giving his speech 50 years ago, on February 4th, 1968, as we continue our conversation with Dr. Harry Edwards, professor emeritus of sociology at University of California, Berkeley, deeply involved with sports, revolts and movements, author of the book, which was just reissued this year, The Revolt of the Black Athlete. Your thoughts on that ad, which I assume you saw on Sunday night, taking King’s words with images of war and soldiers over them?

HARRY EDWARDS: Well, I worked with Dr. King. He endorsed the Olympic Project for Human Rights, and I met with him a couple of times about that movement. When I saw that advertisement last night, I was appalled. I think that to reduce Dr. King’s message, especially in this climate, in this country, under the circumstances that exist now, in terms of not just African-American, but immigrant, women’s circumstances and so forth—to reduce Dr. King’s message to a ploy, to peddle trucks, I think, is appalling. I think that to pimp Dr. King’s message in that regard, in this day and age, under the circumstances that exist, given what we’re up against as a people and where we look like we might be headed as a nation, is absolutely despicable.

But as appalled as I am about the advertiser’s use of it, I’m even more appalled that—about the fact that somebody had to sign off on it. They didn’t just go into a record store or go online and pick up Dr. King’s speech and put it, the voiceover, on that advertisement without somebody associated with the King estate signing off on it. And I think that it’s just appalling that Dr. King, his words, his wisdom, his critically important message at this time, would be allowed to be pimped in that fashion in order to peddle goods.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, you know, Harry Edwards, I had the same feeling when I saw the ad, because I—it’s well known that the King family, Dr. King’s children are very protective of the use of his image and of his legacy. And interestingly, I heard on the radio this morning, one of the commercial radio stations, a member of the King family seeking to defend that ad and saying that it was really in the spirit of Dr. King’s legacy. But it seemed to me, as you say, very crass to take a social justice leader and turn him into basically a pitch man for cars.

HARRY EDWARDS: Well, it’s not just that he was turned into a pitch man. It’s that at a time when we should be studying Dr. King’s message and studying his words, in this critically important historical era, when we’re on the verge of massive changes in virtually every institutional arena, to have watered down any aspect of his message, to the point that it becomes an advertising ploy, I think, degrades both the wisdom of the message and the urgency, what Dr. King referred to as “the fierce urgency of now” at one time. I think it waters down all of that. And to sign off on something like that, I think, is despicable. They are people who are in control of his estate. They most certainly can do whatever they want to do. But in doing it, I think that they should also have to face the judgment of those people in society who regard Dr. King’s words and wisdom as critically important and substantially enduring, in terms of the struggles and so forth that we face as a society and as a nation.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Harry Edwards, this is the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Olympic Project for Human Rights. You were really the architect of this. For those who are not familiar with what happened in 1968, I want to go back to 2011, when we spoke to the 1968 Olympic medalist. International civil rights icon John Carlos talked about the shocked response of the audience in the Mexico City stadium, where John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their hands in the Black Power salute on the medal stand. I want to go back to what happened in 1968.

JOHN CARLOS: Mr. Smith and I, we took various artifacts out there to try and illustrate certain points that we wanted to get across to society, which we really never got a chance to expose to the general public. But we wore the black glove out there primarily because this is the first time the Olympics was in color, Technicolor. So we wanted to be no doubt as to who we were representing first. We were representing our race first, and then we was representing the United States second. We felt like the power sign—most people felt like, you know, when you say “power,” they think about destructive, tear down, burn it down. But it wasn’t about that. It was like this five individuals of color, both of them—all of them sharp. All of them have a paradigm as to how this world could be better, but not one of them could step out from the five and think that he can move a pebble by himself. We needed to come together in terms of being unified to do something. So when these five individuals realized this and came together, then that’s where the power comes in, because now they have enough power and a vision to move a mountain, opposed to trying to move this pebble. That’s what we were trying to illustrate with the glove and the fist.

A second thing is, I had on beads on my neck. The beads were supposed to be illustrating the individuals that had lost their lives through hanging throughout the South. Many black individuals had been hung just merely because of the color of their skin or because they looked at a white woman at that particular time. We could not go and do something as courageous as this and not remember them.

The next thing, Mr. Smith had a black scarf on his shirt, on his neck. And his black scarf was to remember all the individuals that came through the maiden voyage, that was thrown off the ships or thrown off the island to the sharks, that no one ever said a prayer for or remembered in history.

Then I wore a black shirt over my U.S.A. uniform because, to be quite frank, I was ashamed of America for America’s deeds, what they were doing in history, as well as what they were doing at that particular time to us by expressing our feelings. This is the land of the free, they told me, from grade school. And then, when I got to the victory stand, it appeared that it wasn’t the land of the free.

And then, we rolled our pants’ legs up. We wore our black socks and no shoes to illustrate the poverty of many kids through the South in the '60s—and I'm sure a lot of them are still doing it today—walking 10, 20 miles to and from school every day with no shoes—in the greatest nation in the planet, and we had this taking place.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Harry Edwards, can you talk about what happened then and how you relate it to what’s happening today with NFL and overall sports protests and what needs to be done?

HARRY EDWARDS: Well, I think, first of all, we have to understand that the movement that we see today among athletes, this athlete activism is merely the fourth wave of athlete activism that has emerged in American society since the turn of the 20th century, beginning with those athletes Jack Johnson, most certainly Jesse Owens and Joe Louis, Paul Robeson, most certainly, who really struggled to establish the legitimacy of black athletic capability within the context of widespread American apartheid, total abject segregation. And all of those efforts essentially flowered in the international arena: Jack Johnson fought a Canadian, Tommy Burns, in Australia to win the heavyweight championship; Jesse Owens at the Munich Olympics in Germany; Joe Louis beat Max Schmeling, a German. It was always in the international arena. Paul Robeson established himself on the stages of Europe, long before he could perform on the stage at Carnegie Hall.

And then, that second wave of athletes, with Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, most certainly, Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, and then Earl Lloyd and Chuck Cooper in basketball, between 1946 and 1951 struggled for access. They were literally trying to break down the doors of segregation.

Then there was a third wave, which was the wave of athletes that John Carlos was a part of, that really was incited by Muhammad Ali in 1966, ’67, when he refused to step forward for the induction into the military. Of course, he was followed by the Olympic Project for Human Rights, Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Arthur Ashe, Curt Flood, that group of athletes.

This is the fourth wave of athletes. And their struggle is not for legitimacy or access or dignity and respect, as was the third wave. The struggle now is for power. And they’re demonstrating that power in a lot of ways. And I think that we have to understand that there are no final victories. The struggle that we are waging in American society is perpetual, and there are no final victories. Sports has a role in that. And I think that that’s what we’re seeing with LeBron James. That’s what we’re seeing with Michael Jenkins. That’s what we’re seeing with Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid and those athletes who are taking a knee, and sitting, and standing and raising a fist, and raising issues that have to do with the broader community and the trajectory of developments in this nation at the interface of race and society.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Harry Edwards, where do you think that this fourth wave needs to go? Is it in the direction of many of these African-American athletes then becoming political or activists and leaders in their own right running for office? Or do you see them as breaking down the barriers of the ownership and the management situations within the sports itself and redirecting the way that sports operates in the United States? I’m wondering your thoughts on that.

HARRY EDWARDS: Well, I think it’s going to do the same thing that movements have always done, which is to expand amoeba-like and have these bastions of concentration, where you have specific goals, leadership, management styles and so forth, that all make a contribution to change. I don’t think you’re going to have any one leader over all of this who is moving it in a particular direction any more than Muhammad Ali. Even though he fueled and, in many ways, incited greater involvement with the antiwar movement, Muhammad Ali was not the leader of the antiwar movement. The same with the Olympic Project for Human Rights. We most certainly incited greater consciousness on the part of athletes relative to their role in the struggle for—to expand the bases of democratic participation in American society, but we were not the leaders of that movement. It tends to—these types of movements tend to expand amoeba-like. And bastions of leadership, goal achievement, management styles and so forth come up out of that amoeba-like expansion, and you begin to make progress in a variety of different ways.

Will some of these athletes run for political office? I most certainly hope so. Will they make contributions that are distant from where they are now in terms of their efforts to incite and inspire change? More than likely. That has always been the case. So, I think that what we have here is the emergence of icons. Whether or not that iconic kind of involvement will expand into actual leadership depends upon what happens going forward and how specific they become in terms of the goals that they want to achieve and the methodology by which they want to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Dr. Harry Edwards, President Trump is taking credit for the diminishing of the football audience, that is way down, saying that his, you know, attack on the athletes has led to this; it’s really the athletes’ fault, taking the knee. Can you respond to President Trump and how he has dealt with this, singling out black athletes? And you’re an adviser to Colin Kaepernick. What he’s saying right now, as a quarterback who has not been able to get a job, yet, as you point, has become an icon of the movement?

HARRY EDWARDS: Well, I communicate with Colin from time to time—emails, text messages and so forth—but I’m not an adviser to him. He, Colin, is a very bright young man. He’s one of the brightest athletes that I have ever dealt with. And he’s more than capable of defining and setting his own course, following his own judgment, in terms of these issues.

As far as Mr. Trump is concerned, look, let’s remove Trump from the presidency for a moment. This is a man who has attacked two Gold Star families, who has demeaned and ridiculed prisoners of war, who have donned the uniform, oftentimes been injured or wounded and tortured and taken prisoner of war. This is a man who has attacked transgender soldiers. This is a man who has attacked DACA, young people who were brought here by their parents, many of whom came—became part of the military, many of whom are serving in the military at this point. This is a man who is undermining the intelligence agencies and the FBI, who are charged with keeping us safe as a nation. This is a man who is hobnobbing with foreign adversarial spymasters and dropping state secrets in the Oval Office as if he was playing a game of knock-knock. This is a man who has told, by documented, demonstrable fact, more than 2,000 lies to the American public.

And then he’s going to turn around and accuse an athlete who takes a knee and says, “We are better than 147 black men, women and children being shot in the streets of this country every year. We are better than that as a people. We are better than that as a nation. We need to do better”—and he’s going to accuse them of being unpatriotic? That’s a joke. That’s as big a joke as the idiocracy that he’s trying to establish as the American government, as he wrecks one institution after another.

So my response to Mr. Trump, the man, is to simply ignore him. Unfortunately, he’s also the president. And what that means is that we have to do more than simply be outraged by his behavior and by his despicable moral degeneracy. We have to begin to organize, principally around 2018, in those elections, and then, 2020, make sure we drain the sewer that Mr. Trump has established in Washington, D.C., so that this nation can get back on track toward becoming what it ought to be, not just for the sake of this society, but for the sake of the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Harry Edwards, we want to thank you for being with us, professor emeritus of sociology at University of California, Berkeley, author of a number of books, including The Revolt of the Black Athlete, reissued last year for its 50th anniversary edition, architect of the 1968 Olympic Project for Human Rights, the protest of Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City with the Black Power salute. Also, Dr. Harry Edwards is a longtime staff consultant with the San Francisco 49ers.

This is Democracy Now! To see Part 1 of our discussion with Dr. Edwards, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us.

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