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Dreams For Sale: The Auctioning of Martin Luther King's Legacy
(Written April 10, 2001)

In our corporate-driven society, where companies scour the earth for anything to make their product desirable, it is a given that everything is subject to commercialization.   Yet a new ad campaign has managed to surprise the sensibilities of even the most jaded observers.

A company named Alcatel Americas has taken Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech, perhaps the most famous address of the last four decades, and refashioned it into an ad for its line of communications networking product.  While King does not mention the company by name, they did hire George "Star Wars" Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic special effects firm to modify the background of the Mall of Washington, where the speech was delivered in 1963.

This is surely a low point in the annals of commercial usage of real life events, and a poor reflection on the King family.  Lost in the ad is the powerful plea for racial equality and social justice that make the speech so compelling.  Instead of showing a packed Mall of Washington, the ad depicts King speaking to an open area, transforming a powerful event into, literally, nothing. 

The Alcatel commercials are just the latest attempt by the King estate to merchandise Martin Luther King's legacy.  In the past, the estate has sued USA Today and CBS for airing and printing the "I Have A Dream" speech, claiming a violation of copyright, while simultaneously allowing Apple Computers to include King's image in a recent campaign.  They have also negotiated a multimillion dollar deal with Time Warner to produce a series of books and recordings based on King's writings.  The key term here is "based," which means that it's conceivable to foresee a compilation album featuring Time Warner's roster of artists performing songs with no palpable social content that is nonetheless marketed as a "tribute" to King's call for justice.

While it can be argued that as King's heirs, his family has a right to benefit from King's notoriety, their auctioning of his image to those who can afford to meet their asking price makes a mockery of King's work.  He was a man who deplored the impact of commercialism in society, viewing its influence as one that cheapened the human experience.   His criticisms of capitalism toward the end of his life were among the most thoughtful and perceptive insights of his career, indicating that he was continuing to challenge himself to develop new strategies for achieving social justice.   That his most famous moment is now linked to a product must have him turning in his grave. 

The estate's defense that the presence of Martin Luther King in the global marketplace can only increase people's exposure to his message reflects a misplaced assumption that ideals and meaning can emerge intact when filtered through the commercial prism.     It is an idea that history does not support, as proven by the experience of watching Malcolm's "X" become a fashion statement supported by people who believed Spike Lee invented a new trademark instead of associating the symbol with the political leader. 

Commercial product stands the best chance of being profitable by assuming a generic existence not affiliated with any particular ideology.  What the Alcatel campaign does is try to invoke King's spirit of freedom without any of the substance behind his message.  By being a willing participant in this affair, the King family has signalled that even the most potent ideals of the civil rights era can be sacrificed for the right price.

I have a feeling this is not the kind of activity that Martin Luther King's dreams were made of.   

Copyright 2001 Anthony Lamar Rucker.  All rights reserved.    

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