On Sunday, February 4th, Dodge Ram delivered its 60-second ad-spot [above] to over 100 million viewers during Super Bowl LII (52), the crowing jewel of the National Football League. The commercial delivers images of “hard-working Americans” interspersed with images of the Ram truck, scored to the bellowing voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivering a sermon that defines greatness as being of service to one another. While the commercial was certainly well intentioned (and was approved by the King Estate who licensed the use Dr. King’s voice/likeness), anyone with even minimal historical knowledge cannot help but notice the glaring issues present in this advertisement.
Let’s be clear about one thing: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t just die. He didn’t pass away peacefully in his home after illness or old age. He was not tragically taken from this life by car accident, house fire (RIP Jack Pearson), or even suicide by drug overdose. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, murdered in cold blood by White Supremacy on the balcony of a Memphis motel on April 4, 1968. Dr. Martin Luther King was subject to probing FBI Surveillance under its domestic counterintelligence program COINTELPRO from 1955 until his murder in 1968. This country’s continued failure to address and atone for its dehumanization of Black bodies while coddling White racial resentment murdered Dr. King and left four children fatherless.
Fifty years later, capitalism reduced his life and legacy to a soundbite that assuages white guilt to sell trucks. An advertisement that conveniently avoids the rest of the sermon that sharply criticized our nation’s obsession with spending to attain status, warning of the dangers of being “taken by advertisers.”
It should not be lost on anyone that this tone-deaf ad comes on the heels of the NFL’s buckling under pressure of Cheeto Charlatan’s criticism of players who decided to exercise their constitutionally-guaranteed right to peaceful protest. The same NFL who roundly discharged and rejected Colin Kaepernick and then [allegedly] blocked owners from signing him after leaving the 49ers. Just this morning, news outlets described the property destruction in Philadelphia as “raucous and rowdy celebration” after the city’s Super Bowl win. Yet, these same news outlets and audiences that overlooked property destruction over a sports win last night have been known to not be as forgiving to Black and Brown bodies that cry out in protest. When property is destroyed from frustration of our communities being site of constant gentrification and genocide, there is no empathy or accountability for the harm wrought against us. In fact, Dr. King’s words are often caricaturized as a rebuke against our righteous indignation, adding insult to injury.
No matter how well-intended Fiat Chrysler Automobiles U.S. was with this ad, its debut in a climate like this is nothing short of infuriating.
It’s certainly not a matter of finding things to be angry about. As a Black woman in America, I certainly have more than my fair share of reasons to live in a perpetual state of outrage, anger, and disenchantment. It is, however, about the propensity of the dominant American culture (read: white people) who continue to piecemeal Dr. King’s legacy for their convenience. How do we reconcile that in 2016 this nation’s White population overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump, a man whose agenda is the complete antithesis of what King stood for? How do you “feel good” after listening to Dr. King redefine greatness in a way that is attainable for all while vehemently protesting immigration, specifically DACA, and supporting the destruction of families by deportation? You cannot separate Dr. King’s work and words from their entirety to suit your liking, no matter how much you try.
In the Bible, Matthew 26 speaks of the plot to kill Jesus. After having taught the parables of the Ten Bridesmaids and the Talents in chapter 25, Jesus point blank tells His disciples that He would be crucified. In Chapter 26, we also learn of Judas’ agreement to betray Jesus. It is in this chapter where we find the institution of the Lord’s Supper, a ritual many of us as Christians carry forth to this day. We, Christians of all colors, repeat Matthew 25:26-28 faithfully every First Sunday of each month. We emphasize the instructions of 1 Corinthians 11:24, doing so in remembrance of Jesus. Where am I going with this?
Whether you’re a practicing Christian, Mono/Polytheistic, or agnostic/atheist you can understand that the ritual of communion is one that is done in solemn reflection of the entire life and legacy of Jesus Christ. We are not to simply remember the miracles of Jesus or the awe of His birth. We are to remember Jesus turning water to wine as well as Judas’ betrayal. We are to remember Bartimaeus’ healing as we are to remember Peter’s denial. We are to remember the beauty of Christ’s birth as well as the excruciating pain of His death at the hands of the state. We are to remember that Christ’s work was for our immortal salvation as well as a guide to how we dismantle the systems of oppression, bringing mortal salvation to our lives.
Much like our communion ritual reflections, we must “take and eat all of it in remembrance” of the full legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We must sit with the discomfort that acknowledging breadth and depth of this Nation’s racial transgressions will certainly bring. We cannot revere “I Have a Dream” while ignoring “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” We cannot talk about King’s lived experience without discussing the cause and cascading implications of his death. We cannot pick pieces of his words to support capitalistic endeavors that further drive class and wage inequality while ignoring his deeply anti-capitalist sentiments.
We must take the bitter with the sweet of the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Until you do, keep Dr. King’s name and words out of your mouths – and your advertisements.