Selling the dream

Posted: Dec 05, 2001 12:00 AM
Fighting for civil rights is not only good for the community, it is big business. Just ask the family of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. They've hit the big time since deciding to license Dr. King's likeness for a fee. A recent example: The French-owned Alcatel Communications Co. purchased from Dr. King's family the image of his "I Have a Dream Speech" for use in one of their television commercials. Apparently, a smoke-filled room of French executives thought that the crass commercialization of King's image would help them hawk cell phones. It did not. "When I saw that on TV, I could not believe I was seeing what I saw," says NAACP Chairman Julian Bond. Another example: the construction of The King D.C. memorial, to highlight Dr. King's work, was stalled when the King family demanded a financial cut from the use of Dr. King's likeness in the marketing campaign. The archiving of King's legacy in the Library of Congress was similarly stifled when the family demanded $20 million dollars for his works. All of which is fine for the King family, which can strike it rich by parceling out pieces of their father's memory. After all, the family - not the American public - owns the copyrights to Dr. King's image and words. It's just that there seems a certain brutality to using a civil rights leader's image to hawk merchandise. Not to mention that when he was alive, Dr King steadfastly eschewed such huckstering. He spread his word freely because he was deeply sensible to how his words could impact those basic freedoms we associate with happiness. Or, as Dr. King put it, "our economy must become more person-centered and less profit-centered." Now, by attaching a price to Dr. King's dream, the family tucks into its back pocket a valuable part of this country's cultural history. Along the way, they make Dr. King's words less accessible to young people who want to learn about one of the country's seminal leaders. Many of Dr. King's former colleagues chafe at the idea of holding his works hostage. For them, the message, not the profit potential, was the point of the civil rights movement. Quite naturally, they wish to continue sharing the ideas and images that helped haul along the civil rights movement. Doing so can only help complete Dr. King's quest for a more perfect union. Sadly, the King family now seems intent on roping that legacy off and charging admission. That sound you hear is human dignity taking it on the chin.