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The NBA Is Just The Latest Organization To Profit From Martin Luther King Jr.'s Body

Screenshot credit: @memgrizz/Twitter

On Wednesday, the Memphis Grizzlies unveiled their MLK50 Pride uniform, which they will debut against the Chicago Bulls on Jan. 15, 2017, the night before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and wear on select days throughout Black History Month. The uniform incorporates a number of elements from Memphis’s former Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by white supremacist James Earl Ray on April 4, 1968.


Among these elements are the Memphis “wordmark” ...

The “MEMPHIS” wordmark across the chest showcases the marriage of the historic Lorraine Motel sign on the south side of the building and the Grizzlies’ inline typeface.


... as well as the piping ...

The piping design replicates the railing surrounding the exterior walkways and balconies of the historic hotel and museum.


... the color ...

The sea foam color accents, numbers and piping are pulled directly from the doors at rooms 306 and 307, where Dr. King spent his last moments on April 4, 1968.


... and the wreath icon:

The wreath icon on the neckline was designed to represent the wreath that hangs where Dr. King was slain, and placed in the center of the uniform to remind us of his sacrifice and work for social justice and equality.


And if that strikes you as disrespectful, tacky, or just downright strange that an NBA team will proudly wear a jersey that incorporates a number of elements from the assassination of one of the most important figures in American history, well, it’s just the latest in the sad history of people profiting from King’s legacy.

Starting the year after they moved to Memphis in 2001, the Grizzlies built a tradition of hosting a nationally televised game on Martin Luther King Jr. Day (though in recent years it has moved to NBA TV). During the game you’ll typically see a treacly montage of NBA stars talking about what King means to them. Surrounding the game is a youth basketball tournament, a mentorship panel, and a symposium on civil rights.


The Grizzlies are rightly proud that they’ve crafted what is now a weekend-long celebration of King’s life, which includes work that benefits the community. “Every year we push ourselves to grow it because of how impactful it was locally and nationally,” John Pugliese, Grizzlies vice-president of brand, content marketing, communications & broadcast, said.

Pugliese and Grizzlies president of business operations Jason Wexler told me that the idea for the jersey specifically was hatched around two years ago. The Grizzlies approached the National Civil Rights Museum to get their permission, and once secured, they brought the idea to Adidas. Through multiple iterations and scrapping of designs, eventually all parties settled on the design seen above. “We were all very cautious because we knew it had to be incredibly dignified,” said Wexler. “There was no margin for error.”


When I raised the obvious questions about whether an NBA jersey, no matter how dignified, should represent an assassination in everything down to the piping, Wexler said the jersey is all about bringing attention to the work that the National Civil Rights Museum does.

“They use [the Lorraine Motel] as a platform where they engage people into a dialogue,” he said. “For a lot of people, MLK Day is their entryway into trying to understand a little bit more about civil rights. So what we wanted to do was amplify their messaging and what they accomplish at the civil rights museum, bringing awareness of not just the history of the economic and social justice movements, but the ongoing battles being fought.”


But while that may be a noble goal, the museum has also been fiercely criticized by its own founder, as well as at least one member of the King family—which has no involvement with the museum—for the composition of its board and its ties to big business. (The museum didn’t respond to messages left requesting comment.)

The National Civil Rights Museum is the private organization that runs the former Lorraine Motel site, where visitors can see the room where King was staying in when he was assassinated, the blood-splattered balcony upon which he was shot, and the boardinghouse bathroom from which Ray shot him. Jacqueline Smith, who was the last person living at the former Lorraine Motel and has been protesting the museum since her eviction almost 30 years ago, often calls it the “James Earl Ray Memorial.”


When the museum opened its doors in 1991, King’s family warned it not to use his name in its title. The next year the museum’s founder, D’Army Bailey, was ousted as president of the board. His vision of the museum as an agent of ongoing social change clashed with that of the rest of the board, which wanted the museum to focus more squarely on the past. In 2007, when the museum sought a 50-year rent-free lease from the state of Tennessee, Bailey also argued that its board was too white and corporate:

“We’ve got corporate people on the board of this museum. But if you look at the boards of their own corporations, you will find probably few, if any, blacks. So it’s a disconnect,” he says.


The fight over the museum’s lease was a huge controversy. Martin Luther King III, the second child of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, even joined in with criticism of the museum’s ties to corporations. The museum was eventually given a 20-year lease by the state, with a stipulation that it must increase African-American representation on its board. Back then, and to this day, one of the major players on the board was Pitt Hyde, founder of AutoZone and a part-owner of the Grizzlies.

Since a $27.5 million renovation in 2013 and 2014, the museum has widened its focus past King’s assassination and the civil rights movement, but that’s caused controversy as well. Black Lives Matter protested one of the exhibitions—which compared black-on-black crime to the KKK—calling it “morally and intellectually dishonest.”


The National Civil Rights Museum’s stumbles and conflicts in grappling with King’s legacy, though, are nothing compared to what has gone on within King’s family. As controllers of Martin Luther King Jr.’s estate, they have sued to protect it, but more often, King’s children have sued each other, especially since the death of their mother Coretta Scott King in 2006 and oldest sister Yolanda King in 2007.

In 2008, Bernice King and Martin Luther King III sued their brother Dexter King, accusing him of cutting them out of decision-making about King, Inc., and the $32 million in proceeds from a sale of their father’s papers. Dexter King then countersued Bernice King, who was in charge of their mother’s estate, asking that she be forced to hand over Coretta Scott’s personal papers. The lawsuits were settled out of court in 2009.


In 2013 the estate, then-run by Dexter and Martin King, sued the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, run by Bernice King, charging it with carelessly handling King memorabilia and threatening to terminate its license agreement to use the King name and his likeness. Two years later, just before going to trial, the lawsuit was dropped.

In the meantime, in 2014, Dexter and Martin King outvoted Bernice King 2-1 to sell their father’s traveling bible—which Barack Obama was sworn in on for his second term—and his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. When Bernice, who was in possession of the items, refused to turn them over, the estate sued her. That lawsuit was also settled just before going to trial, last month.


The King family has vigorously protected and profited from the rights of the estate. The estate famously sued and beat CBS, establishing that Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech was protected by copyright, and they could therefore charge a licensing fee to use it. In 2009, when the monument to King was being built on Washington D.C.’s National Mall, the estate charged the builders $800,000 to use his image and words. This may help explain why, in partnering with the National Civil Rights Museum, the Grizzlies MLK50 Pride uniforms take inspiration from the Lorraine Motel specifically, and not Martin Luther King Jr. himself. They would certainly have to pay for that privilege.

That the NBA’s big celebration of King’s life takes place in Memphis, where he was murdered, is a bit of a strange choice. Atlanta—where King was born, went to college, preached, and lived, and where there is also an NBA team—would seem to be more appropriate. It’s also worth noting that, while the NBA mostly chooses to remember King as a conciliator, the reason he was even in Memphis in the first place was to help organize the Memphis sanitation strike. He led a march in Memphis where police shot and killed a 16-year-old boy. This was the more radicalized King, the starkly anti-war King that you don’t hear NBA stars praise.


It’s great that the NBA makes Martin Luther King Jr. Day one of the most prominent on its calendar, and the site of King’s assassination is undoubtedly a historic site deserving of study and a museum. But the league and the National Civil Rights Museum working together to commodify King’s death, while focusing on the less-controversial aspects of his legacy and rejecting his activist mission, seems unworthy of the man. Doing so by fetishizing the precise details of his death to provide inspiration for sports apparel seems worse than that.

When I asked the Grizzlies what the King family thought about the uniforms, I was told that their partnership is strictly with the National Civil Rights Museum, not the King Center in Atlanta, and that the family wasn’t involved. Neither Martin Luther III nor Bernice King responded to messages I left for them, and I was unable to reach Dexter Scott King.


But even if they don’t like the uniforms, though, there’s a fair chance they would begrudgingly appreciate the final line of the Grizzlies’ uniform press release:

The MLK50 Pride uniform and other inspired adidas gear will be available for purchase in the Grizzlies Den by adidas starting Jan. 1, 2017 to tip-off the Grizzlies’ annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration.

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About the author

Kevin Draper

Reporter at the New York Times

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