The Selling of MLK

by on January 17, 2011 · 9 comments

in Civil Rights, History

by Lace Watkins / Special to the OB Rag / January 18, 2011

In more than 40 years since MLK’s death, both the man and his central messages have been distorted by those who would utilize his legacy as a putative ‘brand’ rather than the challenge to power structures and institutions that it was. It is understandable that politicians and corporations would want to align themselves with at least part of the ideals he espoused and very real conviction with which he did it—doing so lends a legitimacy and a certain gravitas to what they do, while serving as something of a deflection to what they do, or more accurately don’t do to truly honor and serve that vision.

This co-option has been seen with corporate public relations press releases and advertisements using Dr King’s name to sell everything from cornflakes to sports cars to beer; with politicians invoking his words, using his vision of a color-blind society to rationalize policies that often hurt and oppress the very populations MLK lost his life to stand with, and, most disturbing, with the military co-option of his birth as a neutered backdrop and cover of their actions, (such as targeted recruitment of minority and working-class students), which, to many, are antiethical to what MLK stood for.

This selective inattention to both the words as well as the context in which he said them, is at best uninformed, and at worst a cynical manipulation and distortion of what he did say. It is not enough to focus on only MLK’s “I have a dream” message and not discuss or attempt to acknowledge, much less internalize and implement the more revolutionary and paradigm-changing aspects. It is not enough to treat MLK as a venerated, yet oddly (and unnervingly) ignored. To say that one ‘honors’ the man while disregarding his vision and ideas is the very definition of disingenuousness.

We as a community, and as a country, can and must do better. To truly honor and respect MLK and his contributions to the America he sought to redeem with his life, and ultimately, with his death must be, at minimum to truly learn, acknowledge, internalize, and strive to live out daily—not only one day a year, but make it a driving force of our own lives, and an informer, indeed a driver of our deepest convictions.

America can and must, both individually, and in our common life in this nation, search our hearts and examine our actions. We must take a good look at the stains of racism, classism, and indifference to what our choices have done to the environment, both here and worldwide, that blot our national collective soul. Then and only then, can we even come close to the ‘content of character’ we say we want, but do so little to actually achieve.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Frank Gormlie January 17, 2011 at 12:35 pm

Lace, thanks very much for this brave post. You are saying what needs to be said.


doug porter January 17, 2011 at 2:51 pm

speaking of ignoring DR King’s vision, while profiting politically off of it, here’s a quote from City Council member and wanna-be-mayor Carl DeMaio at an event this morning in the Jacobs Center that he posted on Twitter…
Great turnout at the MLK Breakfast at the Jacobs Center sponsored by UAAMAC. I’m proud to say: “I stand on Dr. King’s shoulders!”
Really? We would have thought you were proud to say that you have your foot on the neck of those pesky City workers… you know, those union folks, like the ones Dr. King was supporting the week he was gunned down…


Chris January 18, 2022 at 6:50 am

No surprise. He’s typical of the conservative who appropriates MLK’s message into the “I don’t see color” set.


Allison Maris January 17, 2011 at 4:06 pm

Thank you Lace for your ongoing contribution to our progressive community. Stay in touch. – A.W. Maris


annagrace January 17, 2011 at 6:48 pm

Lace- a fine article. I agree that the only way to respect and honor Dr. Martin Luther King is to “truly learn, acknowledge, internalize, and strive to live out daily—not only one day a year” those beliefs and actions that made him a “driving force” in our country.

I think we need to be aware that there are contrarian voices that would expunge that history and that voice . The extreme right wing is demanding that school curricula and textbooks should lessen the focus on the “minority experience.” Arizona has banned ethnic studies. The Tennessee Tea Party ” calls for lawmakers to amend state laws governing school curriculums, and for textbook selection criteria to say that “No portrayal of minority experience in the history which actually occurred shall obscure the experience or contributions of the Founding Fathers, or the majority of citizens, including those who reached positions of leadership.” Texas textbooks have become the repository of conservative revisionist history.

The whole “learning” part is in great jeopardy. “How long?…….”


sealintheselkirks January 18, 2022 at 10:59 am

This popped up, and people are quite tired of the co-opting of King. The banner photo of King talking with LBJ in 1966 and the look on the president’s face…

The Annual Resurrection of a Fake Dr. King and Re-entombment of Black Liberation Movement



triggerfinger January 18, 2022 at 12:03 pm

The BLM movement and Dr. King’s own offspring have hijacked his message. If Dr. King were alive today, he would be outcast for not being anti-racist.

It’s an unfortunate reality for those who believe reverse-discrimination is the solution to racial inequality. They also believe they own Dr. King’s message, while continuously distorting it to justify this new and different 21st century cause.

But nobody owns Dr. King’s message. I hope people read his words for themselves and make up their own minds on what they mean, and whether he was right.


Frank Gormlie January 18, 2022 at 12:42 pm

And just exactly is “reverse-discrimination”? Please explain, white man.


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