On a day where we are celebrating MLK Day with a bunch of old white men complaining about the behavior of a young, brash black man in a football game last night, it’s worth reading the eminent historian Tom Sugrue on how King’s words are distorted today. Sugrue identifies 4 Kings in modern memory, each a distortion: Commemorative King, Therapeutic King, Conservative King, and Commodified King. Most of our readers are probably most interested in the Conservative King. But as someone who worked for awhile at the MLK national park in Atlanta, I’m most interested in the Commodified King because ever since 1968, King’s family has cashed in on his memory:
Finally, in perhaps the most American of twists, we have the commodified King — efforts in the last decade, largely spearheaded by the King family itself — to market the words and image of the Reverend King. In classic American fashion, Martin Luther King, Jr. has become a consumer good. King’s family has engaged in an aggressive effort to market the image of the Reverend King, including a multi-million dollar deal with Time Warner for the rights to King’s speeches, writings, and recordings. The King family sued to prevent companies from using King’s image on refrigerator magnets, switchblades, and on “I have a Dream” ice cream cones. But they quickly turned to their own business in King kitsch. In the mid-90s, the Reverend King’s son Dexter King, who administered the King estate, took a pilgrimage to visit the shrine of another King, “THE KING,” Elvis at Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee to pick up some marketing lessons. Since the mid-1990s, King’s estate has authorized, among other things, commemorative pins for the Atlanta Summer Olympics with the likeness of Martin Luther King Jr., porcelain statuettes of King, and, my favorite, checkbooks bearing King’s likeness.