I just about did a double-take last week when I saw the image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on a billboard. The civil rights leader was standing across from the Washington Monument, but instead of thronged crowds there was empty space. "Before you inspire, before you can touch, you must first connect," said the script on the billboard. It was an advertisement for Alcatel, a French company that describes itself as a leader in telecommunications.
Whatever they are, I am appalled, even as I learned that Dr. King's heirs were paid well so that Alcatel could use the image. I suppose I should be grateful. After all, Alcatel could be selling something far more concrete than telecommunications awareness. What if they were selling food, athletic shoes, or prescription drugs. Then we'd have to wonder how consistent those sales were with Dr. King's dream.
Communications is fuzzy and nebulous enough to be embraced, no matter what its content. So if I am to count my blessings in this dream-selling context, I suppose I have a few to count. Indeed, one might say that King's appearance in the commercial world is the highest compliment that our capitalist society can offer anyone. Alcatel has recognized the power of the King image, the fact that his rhetoric and imagery sell. They have made it clear that King has enough posthumous appeal to make his image worth something, and they've recognized our civil rights leader in the only way they know how -- in the marketplace.
By paying his heirs, they've also put a value on King's dream, a value that has not been revealed because no one wants to say what a dream like King's costs. It seems as if we have moved from "I Have A Dream" to "Money, Money, Money, Money." It would be useful for the King heirs to remind themselves that Dr. King said, "If you will respect my dollars, then you must respect my person." Through Operation Breadbasket, he led boycotts against companies that did not fully include African Americans in their governance and operations. If he were alive today, would King embrace Alcatel or reject its corporate policies?
Some will see the King commercial debut as evidence that we have come a long way, baby. I see it as a reminder that we still have a long way to go. After all, African Americans remain relatively absent in corporate executive suites. We are a tiny fraction of those who pull down six-figure earnings. We don't shatter glass ceilings but batter our heads on concrete ones. And, while our images have commercial value, our work efforts are often undervalued. You can't turn on a television without hearing the Motown sound used to sell products from automobiles to fast food. You can't listen to a radio without hearing a cadence that sounds African-American, whether it is real or imitation.
Network television anchors have adopted ebonics as a second language, "dissing" and "chilling" with the worst of them. African-American life has been woven into our nation's popular culture, though African-American lives are often pushed to the periphery. Now, they've got King, too. They've taken a classic speech and turned it into a commercial, taken a moment in history and attempted to turn it into sales. To be sure, they paid for it, and so they should not necessarily be condemned. The fact that King was for sale, though, ought to be cause for condemnation. A moment of conscience has been turned into a commercial construct.
The dream that has motivated so many has been turned into something that can be priced, auctioned, and sold. I wouldn't mind the dream being sold if the dream had been attained. But even as we are being subjected to the Alcatel commercial, we are also being told that a Michigan court will not accept admission standards at the University of Michigan Law School when race is included as an admission factor. Alumnus, athlete, or any other status is okay. Race can't matter, this court says, because it is unfair. The real unfairness, of course, is that race has mattered for so long that the court cannot understand that they cannot simply assert a level playing field. That's not all. Even as we are being barraged with a "dream" commercial, we face a nightmare tax cut that will exclude 57 percent of all African Americans and Latinos.
Dr. King's heirs can sell his image, but they cannot cash out the dream because, by now, the dream no longer belongs to them. It is a dream that many share and many aspire to. It is a dream that transcends the trite commercialism of an Alcatel ad, a dream that the heirs can't put a dollar figure on. They can sell Dr. King's image, but they can't sell his spirit. Indeed, perhaps the King they sold will remind us to search for the dreamer in his works and in his words.
Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C., economist, columnist, and commentator, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.