Everyone seems to be blaming Dodge for desecrating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy in order to sell Ram trucks during the Super Bowl. But the automobile company didn’t do it alone. The slain civil rights leader’s sons had a hand in it too.
So when we’re tossing out criticism for folks trying to make a buck off King’s memory, we can’t stop with the company responsible for the ad, which is actually Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, owner of the brands Dodge and Ram.
We’ve got to look at King’s kids and wonder, “What were they thinking?”
The timing of the commercial could not have been worse.
With racial tensions higher than most Americans have seen in their lifetime, the last thing we needed was a commercial implying that King would have been telling people that in order to be great, they should go out and buy a truck that can cost more than $30,000.
Not only did Ram disgrace King’s name by running the commercial, King’s children disrespected their father’s memory by allowing it to happen.
As caretakers of their father’s estate, Dexter King and Martin Luther King III had to clear the way for the executor to give Ram the go-ahead to use excerpts from their father’s little known sermon, “The Drum Major Instinct.” And they likely were paid a hefty sum for it.
Shortly after the ad ran Sunday night, Bernice King, who has been at odds with her brothers for years over profiting from their father’s legacy, made it clear that neither she nor the King Center had anything to do with the ad.
As CEO of the King Center, Bernice King cannot afford to alienate donors whose private gifts keep the nonprofit center founded by her mother, Coretta Scott King, going.
Based on the backlash on social media, lots of people are livid that Ram used King’s voice in a speech about greatness as if he were talking about a Ram truck.
In the voice-over, King is heard saying, “If you want to be important – wonderful. If you want to be recognized – wonderful. If you want to be great – wonderful. “
The 60-second commercial shows a Ram trekking through the mud and ends with the quote “Built to Serve” on the screen.
Clearly, anyone involved with allowing this ad to make its way before one of television’s biggest audiences must have been brain-dead. Or plain money-hungry.
In some warped way, Ram executives might have thought they could get away with hawking their top-selling truck under the guise of paying tribute to King.
But regardless of how many poignant moments they threw in – from a soldier returning home from duty to rescue workers saving a dog – they couldn’t hide the fact that this was really about Ram trying to sell trucks.
In fact, in the sermon used by the commercial, King spoke about people driving around Cadillacs and Chryslers they can’t afford as a way to stroke their egos.
It is possible that the folks at Ram weren’t as tone-deaf as they appear. Maybe they knew what they were doing and decided that it was worth the risk. Only the Americans who buy the company’s trucks will determine whether the risk pays off.
But the King children, that’s another matter.
For years, the three surviving siblings have been engaged in a public battle over how their father’s legacy should be handled. They have guarded his intellectual properties like pit bulls. In 2006 alone, King’s heirs picked up $32 million by selling a trove of documents.
The siblings have been criticized a lot for that, most recently when they refused to donate King’s Bible and his Nobel Peace Prize to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture because they couldn’t work out a price.
Some have argued that the children have a right to profit off their father’s legacy. The Rev. King died a pauper, without a will. He had nothing of financial value to leave his young children other than the rights to his speeches, his medals and his writings.
But with those holdings come a requirement to use them responsibly.
Had the King sons failed to protect their father’s properties, King’s most notable speeches would, no doubt, have been used for any commercial venture to exploit for money.
The family now shamelessly gets a cut for joining in that exploitation.
Dahleen Glanton is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.