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Staff Editorial: The Commodification of MLK Day

Tweets from ZzzQuil and Malt-O-Meal on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. (Twitter)
Tweets from ZzzQuil and Malt-O-Meal on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. (Twitter)

Holidays have long been commodified and used for commercial gain; that’s not new. Before we even recover from the festivus of winter, the pinks and reds of Valentine’s Day scatter store aisles. Holidays, or “holy days,” are changing from sacred to purchasable. The question we at The Campanil ask is, where is the line drawn? On Jan. 20, we celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The Freedom Train traversed the 54 miles from San Jose to San Francisco, parades and festivals sounded above traffic, and volunteers everywhere responded to Dr. King’s call, “What are you doing for others?” It is, in part, a day of remembrance, celebration, reflection, and community. Which is why when a Campanil editor heard an insurance company use Dr. King’s words as part of a sales pitch, she was shocked.

This MLK Day, we as a staff noticed an increase of radio and internet marketing, as well as company sponsorship of the holiday. While it makes some sense that celebrations about gift giving come with sales and mass buying, MLK Day is not about consumerism. When Malt-O-Meal Cereal wishes you, “Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Get a good breakfast so you’re fueled to do something meaningful today!” on Twitter, suddenly the day is associated with cardboard cereal. When ZzzQuil tweets, “Today is the day for dreaming. Happy MLK Day,” a world-changing speech is snipped and reduced to an advertising slogan. These corporations have found a new holiday to continue to sell, sell, sell.

For Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, there are multiple reasons why this is uncomfortable, why a day about the fight for equal rights of Black Americans and people of color should not be a vehicle for commercialization. We think that these advertisements use Dr. King as a commodity —he becomes an endorsement for products that he did not consent to endorse. The holiday is only 21 this year, barely a legal adult, and already it’s being desecrated. But it doesn’t just end with advertisements.

As one editor explains, even conservative politicians who have long legislated against people of color used Dr. King’s words to quiet justified criticism and outrage. This MLK Day, Sarah Palin misused Dr. King’s own words to urge President Obama not to use “the race card.” We think one reason that MLK’s history and writings have been (and are) whitewashed by the media and politicians is because we are taught and socialized to believe that he was speaking for everyone and everything. Though Dr. King has inspired and continues to inspire many of us who care deeply about social justice, he was speaking mainly to African-Americans and everyone who dreamt of eliminating anti-blackness in the world. He wasn’t just thinking of making white people nicer to black people, but also for black people to have their own agency, rights and acknowledged humanity. And he definitely wasn’t thinking about using his beliefs to sell merchandise.

The question we’re left with is, in a world that sells Malt-O-Meal Dr. King cereal, is anything sacred when it has potential market or political value?