At the National Civil Rights Museum one afternoon this week, throngs of people walked out of the exhibit area and into the museum gift shop.
Conversations flew in English, German and Spanish as they viewed the items on display: books about every aspect of the civil rights movement, refrigerator magnets, T-shirts with Martin Luther King Jr.’s image and quotes.
A fresh line of items commemorated the 50th anniversary of King’s death, including an MLK50 cork wine stopper.
Visitors could buy reprints of articles from The Commercial Appeal, including the 1968 paper with a banner headline: “Dr. King is slain by sniper.”
And then there were items with the logo 306. The number refers to the motel room where King was staying, and it’s on hats, T-shirts and even a shot glass.
One of the 306 souvenirs is a refrigerator magnet replica of the motel room door. The door has a little hinge and swings open. Inside it says “April 4, 1968. Martin Luther King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel / Memphis, TN.”
Many other vendors will likely jump into Martin Luther King Jr. merchandise sales as thousands of people visit Memphis for 50th anniversary commemorations next week.
The museum and others have faced criticism for commercial use of King’s legacy.
Outside the museum, Jacqueline Smith continues her perennial protest, which she began when she was evicted from the motel many years ago to make way for museum construction. She complains the use of the money for museum construction would be better spent on eradicating poverty. One of her banners says, “It desecrates the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”
Faith Morris, chief marketing and external affairs officer for the museum, acknowledges that sales of King merchandise raise questions. “It is sensitive work, there is no doubt about it.”
She said the museum doesn’t approve of crass commercial exploitation of King’s image. “But what we do support is understanding who he was and being able to share, through items that people can enjoy,” she said.
“Seeing Dr. King’s face on a shirt means a whole lot to folks. It’s a way of supporting him and his message … So to have a young person want to have a quote close to them, I think that’s a very good thing.”
Money from the gift shop also helps support the nonprofit museum’s mission of promoting King’s nonviolent philosophy and calls for justice, she said.
She said some uses of King’s image cross the line of decency. For instance, in 2014 a club in Michigan used an image of King’s face pasted onto someone else’s body to advertise a dance party. The event was dubbed “Freedom 2 Twerk Martin Luther King Day Party.”The word “twerk” refers to a rump-shaking, pelvic-thrusting dance.
“Folks all over the country were calling to see what we thought of Dr. King twerking,” Morris said. “He was a lot of things. Twerking was not one of them. That’s what I call inappropriate use of an icon.”
After an outcry, the Freedom 2 Twerk event was canceled.
Another high-profile controversy came this year, when a Super Bowl advertisement for Ram trucks showed people performing acts of service and included audio from King’s “Drum Major” speech. Among the quotes used: “But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant.”
The ad didn’t quote a different section of the same speech in which King criticized car advertisements.
Eric D. Tidwell, a representative of the entity that licenses King’s works, Intellectual Properties Management, said the truck ad met the group’s standards.
“We found that the overall message of the ad embodied Dr. King’s philosophy that true greatness is achieved by serving others,” Tidwell said in a statement reported by USA TODAY. “Thus we decided to be a part of Ram’s ‘Built To Serve’ Super Bowl program.”
Morris of the civil rights museum said she didn’t believe the truck advertisement crossed a line. “I think corporations do have a role in extending, expanding, sharing the importance of iconic leaders like Dr. King.”
Despite the controversies over the use of King’s image and words, Morris said people shouldn’t lose sight of how easy it might be to forget about King entirely.
“He’s been gone for 50 years, which is a long time. You can forget someone in that time.”
Merchandise is one of the things that helps keep him alive, she said. “It’s still as if he’s here.”
Reach reporter Daniel Connolly at 529-5296, firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @danielconnolly