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When U.S. Needs MLK’s Voice More Than Ever, Automaker Dodge Waters Down His Message to Peddle Trucks

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Super Bowl Sunday marked the 50th anniversary of “The Drum Major Instinct,” a historic sermon the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave at the Ebenezer Baptist Church on February 4, 1968, two months before his assassination. The sermon is mostly remembered for the way King concluded it, by imagining his own funeral, downplaying his famous achievements and saying, “If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice.” Well, on Sunday, Ram trucks marked the anniversary of King’s speech by using part of it in a Super Bowl ad to sell trucks. The controversial ad featured King’s voice played over video showing U.S. marines, ranchers and a soldier wearing camouflage, but it ignored King’s own warning about car advertisements from the same speech. We speak to the famed sociologist and civil rights activist Harry Edwards.

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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Super Bowl Sunday marked the 50th anniversary of “The Drum Major Instinct,” a historic sermon that Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. gave at the Ebenezer Baptist Church on February 4, 1968, two months before his assassination. 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.”

AMY GOODMAN: Well, on Sunday, on that 50th anniversary of the speech, Ram trucks marked the anniversary by using part of it in a Super Bowl ad to sell trucks. The ad featured King’s voice played over video showing U.S. marines, ranchers and a soldier wearing camouflage.

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.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, in that same speech that Ram used for a truck ad, 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. Martin Luther King giving his speech 50 years ago, on February 4th, 1968.

Well, Juan González and I talked to Professor Harry Edwards Monday on the show, and then we did a post-show interview about the appropriation of King’s words. Dr. Edwards is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, author of several books, including The Revolt of the Black Athlete, reissued last year for its 50th anniversary edition. He was one of the architects of the 1968 Olympic Project for Human Rights, you know, the famous image in 1968 in Mexico City of Tommie Smith and John Carlos with their hands up in the Black Power salute at the Olympics. He’s a longtime staff consultant with the San Francisco 49ers. I started by asking Professor Edwards to respond to the Ram trucks ad using King’s words overlaid with images of war.

HARRY EDWARDS: 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: That’s Harry Edwards, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, author of a number of books, including The Revolt of the Black Athlete, reissued for its 50th anniversary edition. Yes, the architect of the 1968 Olympic Project for Human Rights.

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