I recently watched a video forwarded to me by political analyst Yvette Carnell. The video featured an image of a very defiant Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In his speech, Dr. King proclaimed that it was time “to get our check,” and that our federal government (where we’ve given taxes, labor and everything else) owed something to poor and Black people who’d been left to suffer for so many decades before. Dr. King also mentioned how the government is always prepared to give subsidies to White farmers and corporations, but would simply tell Black people to “pick themselves up by their bootstraps.”
The video was the start of the “Poor People’s Campaign,” in which Dr. King would go around the nation speaking on behalf of those who’d been forgotten in the depths of poverty.
I thought to myself, “Wow, Dr. King sounds a lot like Dr. Cornel West right now. I wonder if they would be calling him a hater too?”
I thought about how Dr. King has been racially castrated and reduced to little more than a polite little McDonald’s commercial. He is the cute, lovable image that makes everyone, from every background, snug and comfortable in a cesspool of hypocrisy. The man who lived as a rock was transformed into a pillow, loved by millions of people who would hate him if he were alive today.
Dr. King might have been better off if historians had simply given him a sex change. Marketing has an amazing power to turn the true into the false and the false into a fantasy. As a business school professor, I observe this phenomenon regularly.
The postmortem transformation of Dr. King came from tools no less powerful than those used to turn Tiger Woods into a saint, Britney Spears into a virgin and Whitney Houston into the girl next door. If you tell enough lies with intelligent marketing, you can make anything appear to be anything else, for reality is in the eyes of the beholder.
I’ll admit that I was inspired by Dr. King’s speech. He even sounded a little like Malcolm X, and made it clear that his goal was not to become a pet to the establishment. He directly challenged the power of the White House and held our government accountable to the values it claims to promote. He wasn’t willing to throw poor people under the bus for a more comfortable agenda and spoke truth to power no matter what the cost.
Dr. King was not rewarded for his words, he was punished for them. He became highly unpopular for his insistence upon doing God’s work and listening to his conscience in a world that encourages all of us to look the other way. One then has to ask if it’s simply a matter of coincidence that shortly after this speech and the start of the “Poor people’s movement,” Dr. King was assassinated. Perhaps there is a price to telling the truth.