ICYMI: On Kings and Trump Cards

This week over at Culture on the Edge, I have a piece up on the controversial RAM commercial and other contests over the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Most of the pieces I have seen blast RAM for appropriating excerpts of King’s words to sell trucks. I want to move the conversation toward the way competing groups use MLK for gate-keeping and trumping each other.

So here we have a battle over King’s legacy. RAM Trucks follow the ultimate community servant who would dream a prosperous and diverse America into reality. Meanwhile the company’s critics champion the non-violent, anti-capitalist activist who questioned nationalist groupthink.

And both groups believe themselves to have identified the quintessential King.

The piece gets into some conspicuous plays with King in order to show a tragic irony–that a champion of agency gets objectified (or in Peter Berger’s words, “objectivated”) by those claiming to be his true adherents.

If you read the piece, I hope you’ll see the similar plays being made on both sides of the political aisle. Admittedly this was unnerving given my own leanings. At the same time, I don’t see my scholarship as a place to make anyone feel comfortable, let alone myself.

As a teacher, I recognize the learning process to require a slightly different tact. A student asked me the other day whether King’s legacy is something to be given up since it can be used for contrary ends. My piece doesn’t answer this with a clear answer. I do hope that it leaves readers asking that question. To me that question is a prior step to ruthlessly careful and self-conscious criticism. I think that’s probably in order today. But maybe that’s just me.

Richard Newton, PhD is curator of Sowing the Seed and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at  Elizabethtown College. His scholarship focuses on the anthropology of scriptures. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @seedpods

3 thoughts on “ICYMI: On Kings and Trump Cards

  1. I thought and wrote about this issue as well. I’ll head over to Culture at the Edge. Since I have not thought of myself as an MLK gatekeeper (the project on the Vietnam War engages gatekeepers of a sort), the ad caught my attention by how it framed the image of King as a servant and that we can serve our communities too. I’m convinced he made a radical turn (but toward an idea of national nonviolence) by 1965 that the servant King would demand giving to the poor and rejecting military spending. But that is your point, maybe I have become a different kind of gatekeeper.

    1. Thanks for reading, Doug! I picked up on the “servant” piece, too. One thing that stands out to me about how MLK is signified is that those who want to identify and be identified with him can take an ideal–like “servant”–and then make that quality work in a different context–regardless of whether its a position King would take. But this kind of move requires freezing the historical King at a suitable moment. (I’m thinking here with Hayden White’s Tropics of Discourse.”)

      So like many people, RAM made a particular choice about which King was needed in a situation and presented that portrayal as the quintessential King. As you pick up on in your piece “Remembering Dr. King,” the Civil Rights Movement leader was pretty dynamic in shaping a social justice agenda. Freezing King seems to stymie that kind of freedom. So while I too think about about who King might have been were he alive and about ninety years of age, I also wonder who the American public would’ve allowed him to be. It’s hard to think about not just because of all the individuals, organizations, and government agencies interested in trying to make him moot–mortally and ideologically, but also because it’s more difficult to freeze the living than the dead. And yet, this is what we do to people of public interest. I’m guess I’m starting to feel some sort of way about it.

      1. I think a lot about this idea of freezing people in time as a historian. One of the reasons I enjoying teaching historiography is that I want students to understand that their historical actors are just as dynamic as we, the living, are. As a profession I think we have harmed the general reading public by not consciously dealing with this fact. And all of this hit home earlier this week after I presented some of my research on King and Vietnam War. A woman approached me after the event to suggest that even if we could hold King in such high esteem for his stand on nonviolence she could not get past the affairs. I explained that I hoped to humanize him by showing how far we was willing to go in his nonviolence, but the husband in me really struggled to understand that part of his life. In that case, neither Ram Trucks nor I capture all of the man, so we are always freezing only a part of him for any purpose.

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