From The Club To The White House: What’s The Deal With How Everyone Uses Dr. King’s Image These Days?

January 21, 2013  |  

While some of you will be celebrating Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Day by performing service projects around your community or taking the day off as a silent protest for reparations for all the unpaid work and Jim Crow bulls**t our people have gone through, some of you will no doubt be at the American Legion Post for the MLK Weekend No Worries Bash in Florida.

That’s right, many folks across the country decided to pay tribute to one of the greatest figures in the history of the Civil Rights Movement by going to the club, including the MLK Weekend Blast-Off, which went down this past Saturday night in Auburn, Alabama. No word yet on what notable dignitaries might have descended on this fancy shindig, but according to the er…invitation, which featured the bust of the slain Civil Rights leader Photoshopped into a leather bomber and a neck full of enough bling that could make Nino Brown sit his five dollar a** down before King makes change (get it? Change? Martin Luther King Jr.? Ah, forget it…), Ciroc – or Coric (according to the backwards bottles on the flier) – probably was flowing and the ladies were admitted free all night.

While most would agree that putting Dr. King’s face on your club flier is not the best way of paying respect or homage (and odds are that the promoter is more concerned with cashing in on the very lucrative three-day weekend), truth of the matter is that people have been using, and in many instances misappropriating, King’s legacy for years to sell or market stuff. How could we forget the McDonalds’ “Candles” commercials from the ’80s? I’m sure obesity, high blood pressure and the McRib sandwich was not what he marched all them miles in Selma. And then there are his very own family members like Alveda King, niece of the late Dr. King, who has been using her uncle’s legacy to promote her anti-gay, anti-abortion agenda with her cohort Glenn Beck. She even went as far as to claim that the late Coretta Scott King, who said that Dr. King would have supported gay rights, didn’t have the authority to speak on Dr. King’s behalf because she was just related by marriage and not by DNA.

And then what about all those pictures I see of Dr. King Photoshopped sitting next to, hi-fiving and basically co-signing President Barack Obama on mugs, T-shirts and posters- My personal favorite is the very well-executed pencil drawing of a bust of Dr. King, with the caption “I have a dream,” positioned next to another pencil-drawn bust of President Obama, with the caption, “I am the dream.” That imagery is pretty bold and some would argue, pretty authentic, especially considering that today marks not only King’s national holiday, but the second inauguration of President Barack Obama, the country’s first black president. To add to the symbolism, it has been reported that President Obama used a Bible, which belonged o Dr. King, to take his oath.

Unfortunately, Dr. King is no longer with us, so will never know how Dr. King would have reacted to the many ways in which his image has been appropriated. Perhaps he would embrace President Obama’s historic first and then second successful presidential run as the fulfillment, or at least extension, of his legacy. But as a passionate advocate for peace, racial equality, as well as social justice and human rights, Dr. King might not have felt as supportive of some of the Obama Administration’s policies that deal with education, the environment, the use of drones, illegal immigration and the black and poor, particularly black and poor communities. Again, there is no way of knowing for sure. For all we know, Dr. King might have changed positions later in life. However, if he was the same man as his legacy suggests, he might have been a vocal critic of the President. And that type of dissent don’t land your face on mugs and T-shirts, or in pencil drawings next to the country’s first black president. And I doubt very highly that President Obama would be using his Bible at the inauguration.

And while it is true that King was a man of respectability, he was also a man, who once performed a difficult behind-the-back back shot in a pool match with civil rights leader Al Raby in the slums of Chicago in 1966. Therefore, while a picture of Dr. King Photoshopped into a leather bomber with Mr. T chains, looking like an ’80s rap thug is certainly jarring, it is not entirely impossible to believe that he wouldn’t have embraced Hip-Hop/street aesthetic in some form. Based upon the legacy he left us with, I could totally see a modern-day King co-signing a few rappers and appearing in a few hip-hop videos. What better way to recruit the next generation of leaders into the movement for social justice than meeting them where they are at – and in many cases, when where they are at might just be at the club? Heck, even Maya Angelou did a song with Common – and he been calling women b***hes and h*es on and off for years.

But I guess we all have our own version of Dr. King’s legacy, which we like to remember and honor. My own Dr. King is birthed not just out of his dream of racial equality but of social justice, which inspired him to give these words against war in a speech, delivered at Riverside Church in April of 1967:

My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettoes of the North over the last three years — especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask — and rightly so — what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.

Funny, that’s the King we never see a stamp, a party flier, a television commercial or a political platform of. That is what we probably should be offended by.

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