Digital Collection:40 Years of Advertising the MLK Holiday
Building on the sample of advertisements featured in the accompanying Advertising & Society Quarterly article "His Light Still Shines: Corporate Advertisers and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday," this digital collection provides a cross-section of MLK Daythemed or inspired advertisements from 1981 to the present found largely in Black magazines. Collectively, these adverts and advertising features showcase the multivalent ways in which American companies—from multinational corporations to local businesses and commercial vendors—have attempted to walk the tightrope between commemorating and commercializing King, and between acknowledging and appropriating his activism and political legacy.
advertising, African American, American politics, archive, Black history, civil rights, commemoration, corporate social responsibility (CSR), cultural memory, digital collection, ethnicity, Martin Luther King Jr., MLK, national holiday, race
[Editors' Note: See related article by E. James West.]
On April 4, 1968, African American Baptist minister and leading civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed by a White assailant as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Just days later, as race riots catalyzed by King's death continued to rage in dozens of cities across the nation, Democratic Congressman John Conyers introduced a bill to make the fallen civil rights leader's birthday a national holiday. Underpinned by the support of labor unions, the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, and the Congressional Black Caucus, the movement to establish a national holiday for King slowly gathered momentum. Throughout the 1970s, a range of bills introduced by Conyers and Senator Edward Brooke attracted a growing number of cosponsors in both the House and Senate. In 1979, the year in which King would have celebrated his fiftieth birthday, these efforts were given a boost when President Jimmy Carter publicly pledged his support. Conyers' bill would first come to a vote in the House of Representatives later that same year, although it fell five votes short of the two-thirds majority needed for its passage.1
Despite this setback, public and political momentum to establish a national holiday for King continued to grow. In January 1981, more than 100,000 supporters braved freezing weather in Washington, DC to attend a rally in support of the King holiday on the National Mall, headed by Coretta Scott King, Black entertainer Stevie Wonder, DC Mayor Marion Berry, and civil rights activist Jesse Jackson. Congressional debates rumbled on throughout Ronald Reagan's first term in office, before the President finally signed the King Holiday Bill into law in November 1983.2 The holiday was formally observed for the first time on January 20, 1986. State-level resistance to the holiday would persevere into the 1990s, with the opposition of figures such as Arizona governor Evan Mecham drawing a lurid response from rap group Public Enemy in their 1991 hit "By the Time I Get to Arizona." In 2000, South Carolina became the last state to formally recognize the King holiday as a paid holiday for all state employees, although some Southern states continue to combine commemorations of King's birthday with other observances; most jarringly, the birthday of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.
As the King holiday movement approached critical mass during the late 1970s and early 1980s, the King Center and other allies looked to the support of American corporations to help their efforts reach fruition. Despite King's well-documented ambivalence towards consumer capitalism (something that had evolved into a more open hostility by the end of his life), American businesses seized upon King's memory as a means of demonstrating their support for racial equality. As a form of corporate social responsibility (CSR), support for the King holiday from businesses such as Anheuser-Busch, AT&T, and Coca-Cola quickly became an important part of broader efforts to strengthen ties with Black consumers. By the early 1980s, companies such as Greyhound had begun to print commemorative adverts in Black-oriented publications such as Ebony, Black Enterprise, and The Crisis, which expressed support for the passage of the King holiday and celebrated the enduring power of King's "dream." By the second half of the decade, such campaigns had spread beyond Black-oriented publications to include commercials on network television and other mainstream media outlets. In some instances, permissions were granted by the King estate, pointing toward the growing efforts of the King family to both police the portrayal of the activist's legacy and exert their commercial rights over his intellectual property.3
Through the visual and textual content and framing of such commemorative advertisements, American businesses added to already complex and often fractious political and ideological debates around the "true meaning" of King's activism, and, by extension, the function and legacy of the African American Civil Rights Movement. For King's supporters on the left, the holiday represented a call to action and an opportunity to reinforce his reputation as a "warrior for peace on the domestic and global battlefields;" a figure whom Black philosopher Cornel West describes as "a staunch anti-colonial and anti-imperial thinker and … a democratic socialist who sided with poor and working people in the class struggle taking place in capitalist societies."4 For more moderate commentators, the holiday was a moment for Americans of all races and backgrounds to come together and celebrate King's appeals to "Brotherhood" and "unity" in inclusive and apolitical terms. For conservative commentators, the holiday provided an opportunity to recast King as an advocate of consumer capitalism and to reframe the language of "colorblindness" to justify the Reagan administration's dismantling of affirmative action programs and other race-based public initiatives.5
By the mid-1990s, companies appeared to have become more comfortable with capitalizing on the commemoration of MLK Day in order to sell their goods or services. This included consumer products in King's likeness, such as artwork or decorative porcelain, or personal checks that "pay tribute to his principles and beliefs." Over time, commemorative advertising has become less concentrated in Black-oriented publications and has filtered into general market media markets. At the same time, companies have increasingly chosen to fold specific acknowledgements of King and the King holiday into broader appeals to African American cultural heritage and the celebration of Black History, in line with the commemoration of Black History Month in February. By 1996, New York Times contributor Stuart Elliott suggested that American consumers could be excused for thinking the Madison Avenue calendar included "an annual winter festival of [B]lack advertising" that began in January and continued until the beginning of March.6
In more recent years, attitudes appear to have remained mixed on the question of how, and to what extent, American businesses have engaged with the observation of MLK Day. Some commentators have applauded the restraint of corporate advertisers, suggesting that unlike federal holidays such as Memorial Day and Columbus Day which have been "corrupted by commercialism," the national observation of King's birthday remains "mostly resistant to marketability" more than three decades after its inception.7 Other activists and market researchers have criticized the apparent "hijacking" of the King holiday by companies, retailers, party promoters, and other commercial interests. High profile criticisms of recent King-inspired advertising campaigns has refocused public attention on this issue; most notably a Dodge commercial which aired during Super Bowl LII in 2018, and which used an excerpt from King's "Drum Major Instinct" sermon, but ignored other sections of the same speech in which King openly criticized advertisers as "those gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion." More broadly, the impact of the Black Lives Matter Movement had refocused the public eye on corporate appeals to racial justice and their utilization of King and other Black historical figures.
Building on the sample of advertisements featured in the accompanying article, "His Light Still Shines," this digital collection provides a cross-section of MLK Day-themed or inspired advertisements from 1981 to the present. Collectively, these adverts and advertising features showcase the multivalent ways in which American companies—from multinational corporations to local businesses and commercial vendors—have attempted to walk the tightrope between commemorating and commercializing King, and between acknowledging and appropriating his activism and political legacy.
40 Years of Advertising the MLK Holiday
1. David Chappell, Waking from the Dream: The Struggle for Civil Rights in the Shadow of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Random House, 2014); William Jones, "Working-Class Hero," The Nation, January 11, 2016.
2. Nicholas Laham, The Reagan Presidency and the Politics of Race: In Pursuit of Colorblind Justice and Limited Government (London: Praeger, 1998).
3. See Figure 6 below. For more on the efforts of the King estate to privatize King's intellectual property and commercialize his legacy see Daniel Fleming, "'I Have A Copyright': The Privatization of Martin Luther King's Dream," Journal of African American History 103 (2018): 369–401.
4. Cornel West, "Introduction," in The Radical King (Boston: Beacon Press, 2015), xii-xiii.
5. Justin Gomer and Christopher Petrella, "Reagan Used MLK Day to Undermine Racial Justice," Boston Review, January 15, 2017.
6. Stuart Elliott, "The Media Business," New York Times, February 9, 1996.
7. David Andreatta, "MLK Day resists commercialism," Democrat & Chronicle, January 15, 2016.
8. Ebony, January 1981, 3.
9. Ebony, January 1985, 83.
10. Black Enterprise, January 1986, 19.
11. Ebony, January 1987, 29.
12. Black Enterprise, February 1987, 109.
13. Ebony, January 1988, 31.
16. Ebony, January 1989, 139.
17. Black Enterprise, January 1990, 21.
18. Black Enterprise, January 1991, 20.
19. Black Enterprise, January 1991, 58.
20. Black Enterprise, January 1991, 6.
21. Ebony, January 1992, 77.
22. Black Enterprise, January 1993, 26.
24. The Crisis, January 1994, 21.
25. Black Enterprise, January 1995, 7.
26. Ebony, January 1995, 87.
27. Ebony, January 1995, 49.
28. Black Enterprise, January 1996, 55.
29. Ebony, January 2001, 11.
30. Ebony, January 2006, 135.
32. Ebony, January 2007, 147.
33. "Surf Shop Apologizes for 'All Black' MLK Day Sale," Los Angeles Times, January 20, 2011, https://www.latimes.com/socal/daily-pilot/news/tn-cpt-0121-surfshop-20110120-story.html.
34. Jonathan Capehart, "A Powerful Starbucks Homage to MLK." Washington Post, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2015/01/19/a-powerful-starbucks-homage-to-mlk/.
35. "'MLK Day' Commemorative Ads for Comcast NBCUniversal," Robert Salm, https://www.robertsalm.com/Comcast-NBCUniversal-2017-MLK-Day.