Archive for Sunday, April 1, 2001

Commercial use of King hits a nerve

April 1, 2001


I confess to being selective in my outrage.

When the late Fred Astaire was electronically resurrected to do a vacuum cleaner commercial, I was awed by the technology that made it possible. When John Wayne and the Cartwrights from "Bonanza" teamed up to sell beer, I was amused by the premise.

Now Martin Luther King has become a pitchman for Alcatel Americas, a company that builds communications networks. Let's just say that "awed" and "amused" aren't exactly the words I'd use to describe my feelings.

The commercial uses footage of the immortal "I Have A Dream" speech King delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963. But as the camera pans the scene, we see that the crowd that swelled Washington that day has been electronically scrubbed out. King is completely alone, flinging the great words into a void.

"Before you can inspire," says the voice-over, "... you must first connect."

I'd like to connect, all right. My foot with the backside of whoever conceived and approved this piece of historical vandalism. I mean, they could festoon the man's tomb with the Nike swoosh and it wouldn't be much more of a desecration. What the heck was his family smoking when it OK'd this?

Of course, this wouldn't be the first time someone has questioned the sense and sensibilities of Martin Luther King's widow and children. And putting aside the family's controversial embrace of convicted assassin James Earl Ray, most of the questions seem to involve the financial exploitation of King's legacy. There was, for instance, the copyright-infringement lawsuit against USA Today after the paper reprinted "I Have A Dream."

And the nasty spat with the National Park Service over the management of the King historical site in Atlanta. And the marketing of King tchotchkes water bottles, tote bags and things like that. And the multimillion dollar deal with Time Warner to produce King-related material.

I have some personal experience in bargaining with the King family over his work. Sixteen years ago, I approached them asking to use "I Have A Dream" and several other speeches in a radio documentary about King's life. I was shocked to hear that there would be a price $5,000, if I recall correctly. But I got over it. King did not leave his family wealthy and I figured that if his legacy provides them a measure of financial comfort and the means to continue his work, so be it. In the end, I was vaguely honored to pay the bill.

Martin Luther King was first and foremost a husband and father, I told myself. He belongs to them.

That reasoning served me well right up until Alcatel. That spot is an abrupt reminder that, if it's true King belongs to them, it's also true he belongs to us. His wife and children are stewards of his memory. And in selling "I Have A Dream" in this way, they call the wisdom of their stewardship into serious doubt.

Martin Luther King, after all, is not John Wayne or Ben Cartwright. He was in some ways, still is the very conscience of this nation. For my money, "I Have A Dream" is one of the most important orations in our history, among the two or three greatest things any American ever said. The sermon King preached from Lincoln's doorstep is worthy of reverence.

Unfortunately, that's a word the nation in general and Madison Avenue in particular can't spell. There's nothing they won't do to sell us hair sprays and breath mints. You look up and the local arena is named for an airline. The shopping cart is an ad for ice cream. The bowl game carries the name of a package delivery service. In Boston, they're selling naming rights to the subway stops. In Salt Lake City, they're thinking about it.

Commercial culture seeps like dirty water into places it has never been, soiling even that which is worthy of reverence. Now, a man who once spoke to our highest faith and deepest fears speaks for a glorified phone company instead?

I don't think that's the dream he had in mind.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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