MLK, the Dodge Ad, and Capitalism

Patrick D. Jones, Associate Professor of History and Ethnic Studies and author of The Selma of the North: Civil Rights Insurgency in Milwaukee (Harvard University press, 2009). Here are some comments from Prof. Jones on Dodge commercial during the Super Bowl, as well as the sermon full from which the King’s words were taken. Here, too, is an article from Slate that speaks to King’s estate support of the ad.

By Patrick D. Jones:

The Ram Truck ad featuring an excerpt from MLK’s “Drum Major Instinct” speech is more crass than you may have originally realized. In the original speech, Dr. King discusses the impulse we all have “to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade.” It leads us “to be joiners” and “explains why we are so often taken by advertisers. You know, those gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion. And they have a way of saying things to you that kind of gets you into buying. In order to be a man of distinction, you must drink this whiskey. In order to make your neighbors envious, you must DRIVE THIS TYPE OF CARE. (Make it plain) In order to be lovely to love you must wear this kind of lipstick or this kind of perfume. And you know, before you know it, you’re just buying that stuff. (Yes) That’s the way the advertisers do it”…

… “It often causes us to live above our means. (Make it plain) It’s nothing but the drum major instinct. Do you ever see people buy cars that they can’t even begin to buy in terms of their income? (Amen) [laughter] You’ve seen people riding around in Cadillacs and Chryslers who don’t earn enough to have a good T-Model Ford. (Make it plain) But it feeds a repressed ego.

“You know, economists tell us that your AUTOMOBILE should not cost more than half of your annual income. So if you make an income of five thousand dollars, your CAR shouldn’t cost more than about twenty-five hundred. That’s just good economics. And if it’s a family of two, and both members of the family make ten thousand dollars, they would have to make out with one CAR. That would be good economics, although it’s often inconvenient. But so often, haven’t you seen people making five thousand dollars a year and driving a CAR that costs six thousand? And they wonder why their ends never meet. [laughter] That’s a fact.”

… “And you know, you see people over and over again with the drum major instinct taking them over. And they just live their lives trying to outdo the Joneses. (Amen) They got to get this coat because this particular coat is a little better and a little better-looking than Mary’s coat. And I got to drive this CAR because it’s something about this car that makes my CAR a little better than my neighbor’s CAR. (Amen) I know a man who used to live in a thirty-five-thousand-dollar house. And other people started building thirty-five-thousand-dollar houses, so he built a seventy-five-thousand-dollar house. And then somebody else built a seventy-five-thousand-dollar house, and he built a hundred-thousand-dollar house. And I don’t know where he’s going to end up if he’s going to live his life trying to keep up with the Joneses.”

King goes on to discuss the way this instinct is “destructive,” “causes us to lie” and “distorts our personalities,” leads to “snobbish exclusivism” and “classicism,” to those who have things to think they are “a little better than that person who doesn’t have it.” He goes on to also say it leads to “blindness and prejudice,” particularly “race prejudice,” the “false feeling” among working-class whites that because they have certain things that they are “superior” because their “skin is white.”

To King, this is why we, as a society are “drifting.” He spends the remainder of the talk arguing for a redefinition of the “drum major instinct,” to point it away from such base, surface, materialistic and selfish ends and towards broader and deeper spiritual and social ends of love and justice.

So, the transgression is much worse than the initial outrage.

Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Drum Major Instinct” February 4, 1968



Medical Bondage

Julie Hawks interviews historian Deidre Cooper Owens about her new book, Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology

In Medical Bondage, Cooper Owens examines a wide range of scientific literature and less formal communications in which gynecologists created and disseminated medical fictions about their patients, such as their belief that black enslaved women could withstand pain better than white “ladies.”

Julie Hawks: Did you face any challenges conceiving of, researching, writing, revising, publishing, or promoting this book? If so, please share those challenges and how you overcame them? 

Deirdre Cooper Owens: The biggest challenge I faced was trying to eradicate all of the voices I absorbed from well-intentioned colleagues, editors, friends, writing group members, and former professors who had competing ideas about how I was to write Medical Bondage.  Once I learned to trust myself, I found it difficult to isolate and amplify the voice of enslaved and Irish immigrant women whose stories and experiences were contained within medical narratives written by white male doctors.

Beyond the Slave Trade, The Cadaver Trade

By Daina Ramey Berry

Beyond the Slave Trade, the Cadaver Trade

“The topic of slavery features prominently in each February’s reflections on African-American history. But when it comes to this darkest time in our country’s past, experts are still discovering horrors that have not yet made their way into history books.

One shocking fact that’s recently come to light: Major medical schools used slave corpses, acquired through an underground market in dead bodies, for education and research.

Yes, there was a robust body-snatching industry in which cadavers — mostly the bodies of black people, many of whom had been enslaved when they were alive — were used at Harvard, the Universities of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, and other institutions.”

An African Country Reckons with its history of selling slaves

These discussion about the trans-Atlantic Slave trade and slavery persist, see “An African country reckons with its history of selling slaves”

“For over 200 years, powerful kings in what is now the country of Benin captured and sold slaves to Portuguese, French and British merchants. The slaves were usually men, women and children from rival tribes — gagged and jammed into boats bound for Brazil, Haiti and the United States.

The trade largely stopped by the end of the 19th century, but Benin never fully confronted what had happened. The kingdoms that captured and sold slaves still exist today as tribal networks, and so do the groups that were raided. The descendants of slave merchants, like the de Souza family, remain among the nation’s most influential people, with a large degree of control over how Benin’s history is portrayed.”

“The memory of slavery emerges here in large and small ways. In the 2016 presidential election, one candidate, Lionel Zinsou, angrily pointed out in a televised debate that his opponent, Patrice Talon, who is now president of Benin, was the descendant of slave merchants. In villages where people were abducted for the slave trade, families still ask reflexively when they hear a knock on the door whether the visitor is “a human being” or a slave raider.”

Welcome History of Black America


History of Black America is an introduction to African American history, covering periods from the Transatlantic Slave Trade to the present. The objective of the course is to assess watershed periods, such as Slavery in Colonial and Antebellum America, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Great Migration and World War I; the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, and Civil Rights and the Black Power movements.

Syllabus_His of Black Am_spr 2018