I wrote this early last year after the Super Bowl. I think it’s still relevant. Again on MLK’s Birthday, we see his words whitewashed, and his message neutered. Here’s what I had to say about it…
It’s been 11 days since one of the more exciting Super Bowls was played in Minneapolis, MN between the favorite New England Patriots, and the Philadelphia Eagles. An explosion of offense on both sides of the ball, both quarterbacks rising to the occasion on the biggest stage in their sport. A record breaking outing by incumbent Tom Brady was not enough to downthrow the dark horse, Nick Foles. A man (Foles), who, before the start of the NFL season was contemplating his retirement from the sport. After a season ending injury to the Eagles starter, and budding superstar QB Carson Wentz, Foles got his chance. While he (Foles) was mildly underwhelming in the regular season, he showed the flashes of brilliance that made him a Pro Bowl quarterback in the 2013 season in the Eagles playoff run. In the Super Bowl, he was a surgeon, dissecting the Patriots beleaguered secondary.
Now, one of the fun parts of watching the Super Bowl, an aspect some may call a “guilty pleasure”, is THE COMMERCIALS! Yes, it’s not only the big game for football, it’s an equally momentous occasion for the advertising industry. As I sat and watched the advertisements, waiting to see what the propaganda peddlers have bestowed upon us, one ad in particular literally floored me. It was the ad that featured one of Dr. Martin Luther King’s great speeches. “The Drum Major Instinct”.
Now for those of you that haven’t heard, or don’t know anything about that speech, please don’t feel ashamed. Dr. King remains a man that is almost frozen in time. August 28th, 1963 in fact. That was the moment he gave his most memorable speech, the “I have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The paradigmatic part of that iconic speech, the one history replays for us over and over around the middle of January, is a line of asking for racial harmony. And that is where Dr. King’s legacy seems to lay. Or at least in the eyes of the younger generation and the overall masses of Americans who enjoy the holiday and the commemorative stamps. A man, who very politely asked to have the honor to intermix with his white contemporaries without the specter of Jim Crow getting in the way; and he did all of this with a kind of obsequious charm. Now, I don’t for ONE MINUTE believe this to be true, but that’s where he lay in the minds of a mass of people. The selective amnesia of the true history of the radical King, has made him the neoliberal definition of “Black Exceptionalism”. The Dodge corporation buttressed that sentiment against a wall of vapid American Exceptionalism.
“Secondly, we are challenged to eradicate the last vestiges of racial injustice from our nation. I must say this morning that racial injustice is still the black man’s burden and the white man’s shame.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The irony in the ad attempted to make a mockery of a speech that is still so extant. I have included the entire speech in the above hyperlinks, but if you, for whatever reason, need a more abridged version, the speech discusses what Dr. King calls the “Drum Major Instinct”. The instinct in all of us to be first, to be better, to “lead the parade”. This instinct as King puts it, “We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade. Alfred Adler, the great psychoanalyst, contends that this is the dominant impulse. Sigmund Freud used to contend that sex was the dominant impulse, and Adler came with a new argument saying that this quest for recognition, this desire for attention, this desire for distinction is the basic impulse, the basic drive of human life, this drum major instinct.” King implored his followers to use this “Drum Major Instinct” to seek greatness through service and love.
King then really breaks it down with an insightful and oh so prescient warning to the audience:
“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. (Make it plain) 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. (Yes) That’s the way the advertisers do it.”
So in a speech, where he decries the manufacturing of rampant consumerism by the advertising industry, THAT SAME INDUSTRY USES THAT SPEECH TO PEDDLE IT’S GOODS! In a speech where Dr. King explains again, his anti-war (Vietnam) stance, there is a backdrop of proud soldiers. Glorifying the militarized capitalism that King had spent the end of life warning us against. Camouflaged by hugging, loving multicolored families, images of “hard working Americans”, tends to whitewash the power of the message in this particular speech.
His anti-war sentiment spoken so beautifully.
“And not only does this thing go into the racial struggle, it goes into the struggle between nations. And I would submit to you this morning that what is wrong in the world today is that the nations of the world are engaged in a bitter, colossal contest for supremacy. And if something doesn’t happen to stop this trend, I’m sorely afraid that we won’t be here to talk about Jesus Christ and about God and about brotherhood too many more years. (Yeah) If somebody doesn’t bring an end to this suicidal thrust that we see in the world today, none of us are going to be around, because somebody’s going to make the mistake through our senseless blunderings of dropping a nuclear bomb somewhere. And then another one is going to drop. And don’t let anybody fool you, this can happen within a matter of seconds. (Amen) They have twenty-megaton bombs in Russia right now that can destroy a city as big as New York in three seconds, with everybody wiped away, and every building. And we can do the same thing to Russia and China.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
These don’t seem like the words we’re used to when we think of Martin Luther King Jr. These are the words that put him at odds with people in his own party and also put him at odds with a nation. Once he came out against the Vietnam war, as the country was already divided by the conflict, it created a wedge between King and Lyndon B. Johnson. A documentary about the last years of his life is coming out that details the struggle he had once he denounced the war in Vietnam and the feeling of loneliness he battled as he felt alone in this fight. Couple that with the fact that the younger generation of Civil Rights activists were growing tired of the “non-violent” approach and pointed to America’s involvement in the Vietnam War as reasoning for no longer “turning the cheek”. They questioned how could marches of peace and non-violence get through to a country built on genocide and violence. The War in Vietnam was a great reminder for many that the US war machine is without empathy. It is the engine on which empire runs it’s destructive course. As victims of this murderous regime, how could one stay vigilant in the non violent dogma? As Stokely Carmichael said about King:
“Dr. King’s policy was that nonviolence would achieve the gains for black people in the United States. His major assumption was that if you are nonviolent, if you suffer, your opponent will see your suffering and will be moved to change his heart. That’s very good. He only made one fallacious assumption: In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.”
“God didn’t call America to do what she’s doing in the world now. (Preach it, preach it) God didn’t call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war as the war in Vietnam. And we are criminals in that war. We’ve committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world, and I’m going to continue to say it. And we won’t stop it because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
When I listen to King’s speech, and I’ve had it on a constant rotation on my walk to my job; I get more and more appalled at the cavalier attitude of the commercial at hand. Again twisting the narrative of King to fit in a very commercial friendly box. An anti-capitalist, a self proclaimed democratic socialist, pimped by the very industry he warned so many of us about. I will say one thing about that ad, it compelled me to write this. I have for some time known about the widely ignored revolutionary greatness of King. He wasn’t just bus boycotts and speeches about dreaming. A true Patriot he was, and fought for that line, that we so mindlessly rattle off as children when we recite our blind pledge to a flag; “…and justice for all.”
“Every now and then I guess we all think realistically (Yes, sir) about that day when we will be victimized with what is life’s final common denominator — that something that we call death. We all think about it. And every now and then I think about my own death and I think about my own funeral. And I don’t think of it in a morbid sense. And every now and then I ask myself, “What is it that I would want said?” And I leave the word to you this morning.
If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. (Yes) And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize — that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards — that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school. (Yes)
I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. (Yes)
I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.
I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. (Amen)
I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. (Yes)
And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. (Yes)
I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. (Lord)
I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity. (Yes)
Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. (Amen) Say that I was a drum major for peace. (Yes) I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. (Yes) I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. (Amen) And that’s all I want to say.
If I can help somebody as I pass along,
If I can cheer somebody with a word or song,
If I can show somebody he’s traveling wrong,
Then my living will not be in vain.
If I can do my duty as a Christian ought,
If I can bring salvation to a world once wrought,
If I can spread the message as the master taught,
Then my living will not be in vain.
Yes, Jesus, I want to be on your right or your left side, (Yes) not for any selfish reason. I want to be on your right or your left side, not in terms of some political kingdom or ambition. But I just want to be there in love and in justice and in truth and in commitment to others, so that we can make of this old world a new world.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.