King's 'Dream' Becomes Commercial
Civil Rights Leader's Heirs Approved Use Of Image by Alcatel
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 28, 2001; Page C01
The grainy black-and-white image is familiar. The man and his stirring
words are the same. But then something strange happens to Martin Luther
King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.
As the camera pans from King's image on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial,
the crowd that heard his exhortations on Aug. 28, 1963, is gone. No throngs
cheer his call for racial justice, not a soul hears him speak of an America
where his children will be judged "not by the color of their skin but by
the content of their character."
Instead, over a shot of King speaking to an empty Mall, a voiceover informs
viewers: "Before you can inspire, before you can touch, you must first
connect. And the company that connects more of the world is Alcatel, a
leader in communication networks."
Yes, it's the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., posthumous pitchman.
King is the new star of a TV and print campaign for Alcatel Americas, the
domestic arm of a French company that builds voice and data networks.
Alcatel hired George Lucas's Industrial Light + Magic shop to give King's
revered "Dream" speech a "Forrest Gump"-like spin. Print ads, which appear
in The Washington Post and other newspapers, also feature tricked-up photos
of the speech. The King family approved the use of King's image and speech
in the campaign.
According to a company statement, the King ad showcases "Alcatel's stature
as the architect of end-to-end global communications networks."
But critics say it merely showcases bad taste.
"I guess this is just proof that in America even the most sacred icons of
the civil rights movement are not immune to exploitation and
commercialization," says Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP. "It's
certainly true that the business of America seems to be business and
business prevails. It's a sad situation, but that's America."
Adds King biographer Richard Lischer, "There's a part of us that says some
things shouldn't be for sale. Racial reconciliation and justice shouldn't
be on the market."
Alcatel spokesman Brad Burns dismisses such criticism, saying that "with
any impactful campaign, you'll always get a handful of negatives." He says
the company has received "overwhelmingly positive feedback" since the ads
began last week, including from some organizations composed of African
"It's not like we're selling a product," Burns says. "We're simply
associating our brand with it. This isn't Fred Astaire with a vacuum cleaner."
King and other black leaders organized the March on Washington in 1963 to
argue for expanded civil rights and greater economic opportunity. His
speech before some 200,000 supporters was the highlight. The event is
generally credited with propelling the passage of the Civil Rights Act of
1964, which outlawed segregation in public facilities and discrimination in
education and employment. That year, King won the Nobel Peace Prize. He was
assassinated on April 4, 1968.
Alcatel actually is the second high-tech company to use King's image in an
advertisement the last two years, although the first in memory to
incorporate King's famous speech in connection with a company.
In 1999, Apple Computer ran magazine ads and billboards featuring King as
part of its "Think Different" campaign that also included likenesses of
Picasso, Gandhi, Einstein and Amelia Earhart.
In both cases, the commercial appropriation of King was approved by King's
heirs through the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social
Change in Atlanta. Robert Vickers, a representative of the center, which is
headed by King's son Dexter Scott King, acknowledged that Alcatel had
licensed footage of the speech. Neither he nor Burns would say how much the
The King family has received periodic criticism for its efforts to
commercialize King's legacy, most notably in 1997 when it struck a
multimillion-dollar deal with Time Warner to produce recordings of his
speeches and books based on his writings.
Supporters of the family, however, said at the time that the agreement
would help support the King Center and would bring King's message to a
The family has been especially protective of the "I Have a Dream" speech,
going to court to keep the speech copyrighted and to protect licensing
fees. In 1993, it withdrew a lawsuit against USA Today after the paper paid
$1,700 plus unspecified legal costs for reprinting the entire text without
"I remember that when I called the commercial agency that handles [the King
estate], I was told, 'If you think you're going to quote from that speech,
it's going to cost you,' " says Lischer, the author of "The Preacher King"
and a professor at Duke University. "I always thought 'I Have a Dream' is
the 20th-century parallel to the Gettysburg Address. It's one of the few
speeches we bother to teach our children anymore. I was shocked by that."
Another King biographer, Michael Eric Dyson of DePaul University, has been
harshly critical of efforts to exploit King. But he confessed to being
"torn" about the Alcatel ad. "Yes, an icon is being commercialized, but
he's also being repackaged for a new generation around the notion of
technology," says Dyson, whose book is titled "I May Not Get There With
You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr."
"It does bring that whole civil rights generation into the generation of
technology. It says that the Internet is something for African American
people, too. . . . At least they're not selling a coffeemaker or an ice
cream machine or a switchblade."
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