Moderately distracted while watching the Super Bowl last night, I turned my attention to the television when I thought I heard the words of a Martin Luther King, Jr. sermon. I missed the opening shot sequence that pointed out that fifty years ago to the day King had preached the sermon “The Drum Major Instinct.” The momentary distraction at the beginning created the cognitive dissonance that confused me about the words in the narration and the images on the screen. While I admired the use of the service ideal, the larger context of the words did not fit the message of the advertisement.
The reason for the disconnect is that I am working on a book manuscript about MLK and the Vietnam War. Many folks have chastise Rams Trucks (Fiat Chrysler is the parent company), including Holly Genovese’s in-game commentary on the ad. I posted a tweet that identified my own displeasure with the ad shortly after it appeared.
Someone at Ram Trucks should have asked a historian about that #MLK sermon. He hated crass materialism.
— Doug Thompson (@DrDougThompson) February 5, 2018
Turned out there were many who found some kind of offense at the use of Martin Luther King, Jr. to sell trucks. The commentary has continued through today with news pieces from the Associated Press, New York Times, and Washington Post highlighting different issues and concerns.
The tone of the commercial suggests something about our common, shared experiences—something many companies appeared to capitalize on during the Super Bowl. In our current political climate, it felt like companies were trying to say “we really are in this together.” But as Genovese points out, that feel good reference attached to King intentionally reduces our understanding of the radicalness of his message, particularly after 1965 and how white Americans perceive the victories of the civil rights movement.
King had already turned his attention to the uneven nature of wealth distribution in the United States. It wasn’t enough to give an African American access to the seat, store, or eatery if the individual did not have enough money to spend in those places. While everyone focuses either on King’s first condemnation of the military buildup in Vietnam in 1965 (which he retracted under heavy pressure) or his celebrated, if much maligned, Riverside Church speech in 1967 condemning the war outright, King’s insightful connection of racism, militarism, and materialism appeared first in late September 1964 during his address at the annual meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Eight months earlier, President Lyndon B. Johnson had delivered in his State of the Union address his new domestic agenda in the form of a “war on poverty.” King asserted in his address that he would be happy to fight in Johnson’s “war” if only Congress would appropriate enough money to carry out the program. A late August event served as King’s example of the nation’s obsession with actual wars over domestic programs.
While Congress had debated an appropriation bill for most of the summer that would give a little under $24 to each person living in poverty in the United States, the military used (what we now know as a fabricated attack) a U.S. Navy encounter in the Gulf of Tonkin with North Vietnamese gunships off the Vietnamese coast as a provocation of war. In a matter of days, Congress passed the “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution” that gave the president authority to spend as much money as necessary to defeat the North Vietnamese. King rightly noted that any true war on poverty required the same kind of motivation of financial resources and the nation rarely thought of its poor as deserving that kind of wealth redistribution. The 1964 address to the annual meeting of SCLC gets little attention in the King pantheon of quotations, but it is a searing critique of how little the United States values its own citizens in favor of military strength or commercial gain. Long before 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. had claimed that Americans’ infatuation with automobiles was the quickest way to see how far from God’s divine plan American Christians were. Somehow in the rhetoric of the “feel good” King we miss the sharp edge of his persistent critique of capitalism.
It is clear that we can make whatever of Martin Luther King, Jr. we want to make of him. Dreaming about the day when we will all sit down together means we can forget about that threat that exists at the opening of the March on Washington speech—we have come here today to cash a check that has been marked insufficient funds for more than one hundred years. So we really should not be shocked when Ram Truck commodifies “The Drum Major Instinct.” It’s built into the very fabric of our sellable society. But that commercialization comes at a heavy cost.
In the last three years of his life, King had grown tired of American capitalism and its dependence on racism and military spending to keep it going both at home and abroad. When he condemned extreme materialism, he connected America’s imperial impulse in the Cold War to racism. The only way to carry out a imperial project is with a substantial military force. If we spend money on that project, King argued, we have very little money (less than $24 for each individual) to help people at home out of poverty. Since King’s image holds intellectual property rights, we can sell the prophetic voice anyway we like. Just turns out that not everyone understands the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of “The Drum Major Instinct” as a call to volunteerism/service (as Fiat Chrysler did). In its entirely, the sermon is a jeremiad against not only everything the ad stood for but everything the Super Bowl stands for. By watching the game and the commercials, the critics of the ad including me were no different than Fiat Chrysler or the Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr. since the financial power of the ad is related to the size of the television audience. The King I have come to know through research would be disappointed with all of us.