The Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on the National Mall was set to be dedicated this coming Sunday, but that dedication has been postponed due to Hurricane Irene. While I do not have any strong feelings one way or another about the monument itself, the way in which it was set to be dedicated has piqued my interest.
In order to raise money for the MLK memorial, Alpha Phi Alpha solicited donations from corporate sponsors. The list of corporate sponsors include the General Motors Foundation, Chevrolet, the Tommy Hilfiger Corporate Foundation, Aetna, Boeing, BP, Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines, GE, McDonald’s, Travelers, and Walmart. These sponsors were given distinguished titles as either Dedication Chairs, Co-Chairs, or Vice Chairs.
Given MLK’s staunch anti-capitalism, the inclusion of any corporate sponsors in public roles is extremely bizarre. Corporations involve themselves in projects like this in order to boost their public image so that they can further their oftentimes exploitative enterprises. For instance, the BP_America twitter account has managed to mention its involvement in the monument 26 times in the last 2 days. I feel safe speculating that Martin Luther King Jr. would rather have no memorial at all than one which allowed massive corporations like BP to score public relations points.
In addition to the general absurdity of a corporate-sponsored MLK monument, the specific list of corporations involved in the sponsorship includes some of the worse corporate actors out there. Does anyone seriously think that MLK would be supportive of naming Wal-Mart, BP, and Coca-Cola of all corporations as Dedication Vice-Chairs for a monument in his honor?
Recall that Martin Luther King once argued:
A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: “This is not just.”
For those not aware, the capitalistic behavior being condemned by MLK in that quote exactly describes what Coca-Cola does in South America, what Wal-Mart does in China, and what BP has done all over the world, most notably in Iran. It seems obvious that MLK would disapprove of any association of himself with those corporations.
Recall also that King died fighting for garbage men who made inhumane wages, were treated poorly, and who were aggressively prevented from exercising their rights to collectively bargain. McDonald’s and Wal-Mart famously do all of those things to their millions of low paid workers whose rights to unionize have all but been stripped from them by the companies’ corporate practices. Once again, I cannot see MLK wanting anything else but to distance himself from Wal-Mart and McDonald’s, something this monument’s partnership does the opposite of.
Finally, recall that King vehemently criticized U.S. militarism, specifically in relation to its involvement in Vietnam. In his famous anti-war speech, King decried the cancer of militarism. He remarks at one point in the speech:
When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, militarism and economic exploitation are incapable of being conquered.
King no doubt has in mind many things in that sentence, but prominently in his consideration is militaristic war profiteering. This of course is where Dedication Vice-Chair Boeing makes a significant chunk of its money. The Boeing corporation builds all sorts of war planes and munitions, grabbing up hundreds of billions of dollars in government expenditures that King rightly argued would be better spent on programs of social uplift.
The inclusion of these corporations should really be seen as an embarrassment for the organizers of the MLK monument. There is little doubt that MLK would be embarrassed to be associated with any of them, something Alpha Phi Alpha apparently did not consider or did not see as important. Ultimately, it probably matters little what happens with this monument: King’s profound radicalism on issues of economic injustice and militarism has already been erased from the popular historical record. That we can even have a monument built on the National Mall that war contractors and union busters are willing to sponsor demonstrates that.
With that said, there is still something rightly repugnant about the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial brought to you by Coca-Cola.