Martin Luther King Jr.’s words rang out on televisions across the country Sunday night — in an ad to sell pickup trucks.
In a Super Bowl spot for Ram Trucks, King’s “Drum Major Instinct” sermon plays over shots of people hard at work: a teacher instructing children, soldiers marching, volunteers handing out food, and a family chopping wood. The message from Ram is that the trucks are built to serve. King says:
“If you want to be important — wonderful. If you want to be recognized —wonderful. If you want to be great — wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness. And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.”
Though his message about service remains mighty, King’s speech came 50 years ago to the day on Sunday, at a point near the end of his life when King focused even more vocally on economic justice, dignity at work, and the destructive forces of systemic poverty.
In fact, economic inequality was just one of the facets of capitalism that King openly took issue with. His February 4, 1968, sermon was, in part, an examination and takedown of “a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first,” when it comes to monetary possessions. In other words, King was not a fan of this instinct. Take, for instance, an excerpt from this same speech about advertising itself (emphasis my own):
And so we see it everywhere, this quest for recognition. And we join things, overjoin really, that we think that we will find that recognition in.
Now the presence of this instinct explains why we are so often taken by advertisers. You know, those gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion. And they have a way of saying things to you that kind of gets you into buying. In order to be a man of distinction, you must drink this whiskey. In order to make your neighbors envious, you must drive this type of car. In order to be lovely to love you must wear this kind of lipstick or this kind of perfume. And you know, before you know it, you’re just buying that stuff. That’s the way the advertisers do it.
This sermon literally also discourages people from spending too much money on their cars. Yes, it really does.
King’s sermons, which are not in the public domain, are notoriously difficult to republish or reuse. The King family estate sued USA Today and CBS for republishing or broadcasting his “I Have a Dream” speech in its entirety. A planned King biopic with Steven Spielberg on tap to direct has the right to use his speeches, meaning the 2014 film Selma had to paraphrase and circumvent use of King’s words. The nonprofit King Center, run by King’s daughter Bernice King, announced Sunday night it had nothing to do with granting Ram Trucks the rights to the speech. Slate’s April Glaser reports, however, that Eric D. Tidwell, the managing director of Intellectual Properties Management, Inc., which manages licensing for the estate of Martin Luther King, Jr., approved the commercial. Ram later issued a statement saying it was honored to work with the King estate on the ad.
That King’s words were used in an advertisement for pickup trucks, during a tentpole capitalistic event marking the tail-end of an NFL season in which racial protest was a key element, is an irony that cannot be understated. All the more jarring is the presumption that King’s words act here as a symbol of unity. Yet over the years King’s work, which had once divided people, now symbolizes what racial protest “should” look like.
As P.R. Lockhart pointed out for Vox this week, the protests of King’s civil rights era are now juxtaposed with football players taking a knee during the national anthem; in 2018, King’s protests are now considered the “right” approach, while the players’ protests against racial injustice are considered inappropriate to modern critics.
Never mind the fact that during the civil rights era, 60 percent of Americans sneered at the March on Washington, where King gave his most famous speech, now taught in America’s classrooms every January.
There’s no doubt Ram Trucks aimed to bring together audiences (and potential customers) with a figure whose words, decades after his death, have stood the test of time to represent equality, unity, and yes, service. But as we approach the 50-year mark of King’s assassination during a modern era of hard conversations around race, gender, and class privilege, King’s words will undoubtedly ring true to those who truly listen.
Correction: An earlier version of this story affiliated Ram Trucks with Dodge. Ram is now a separate brand under the same parent company, Fiat Chrysler.