Big business is hijacking our radical past. We must stop it

Ram Trucks distorted a Martin Luther King sermon to sell its cars. This is how the establishment whitewashes history

BY Gary Younge | The Guardian | February 9, 2018


In 1966, shortly before Martin Luther King branded America “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” and insisted “capitalism forgets that life is social”, a Gallup poll showed two thirds of Americans viewed him unfavourably. In 1999, when Gallup asked Americans for the most admired figures of the 20th century, King came second to Mother Teresa. When his monument went up on the National Mall in Washington in 2011, 91% of Americans approved.

Steven W Thrasher

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But when it comes to throwing its arms around a man it once loathed, American capitalism outdid itself last weekend, using a recording of a sermon King delivered about the value of service to sell Ram Trucks – “Built to Serve” – during the Superbowl.

Given that King was dead during the entire transition from being reviled to being revered, we should assume the journey owed less to what he did than to how others chose to remember him.

In the week when Britain celebrated the centenary of the act of parliament that granted the vote to some women, it is worth examining the manner in which radical history is misrepresented and radicals themselves are routinely coopted. With the militancy that made them both possible denied or distorted, their achievements are instead folded into the official narrative as though challenging the establishment was, in fact, the establishment’s idea all along. What was once considered dangerous and incendiary is repackaged as obvious and inevitable.

Before radical history can be embraced by the establishment it must first be washed clean of whatever ideology drove it

Referring to America’s conversion to marriage equality, veteran gay rights campaigner Madeline Davis told me: “People forget that this did not erupt wholly from the head of Zeus … Those of us who did work hard all over the country put in many days and many hours going through rejection.” Movements are reduced to individuals – Rosa Parks’ momentary act of defiance on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama is credited with forcing change, rather than the subsequent year-long transport boycott by the city’s black population.

Individuals, meanwhile, are elevated to ico