Martin Luther King, Jr. was undoubtedly the most famous black activist of what is known as the civil rights period. He was an adulterer, plagiarizer, and Communist sympathizer, but even in the 1950s and ‘60s the white establishment was hesitant to criticize so eloquent a spokesman for racial integration. By the time of King’s assassination in 1968, he was an advisor to presidents, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and recipient of countless honorary degrees.
As was the case with Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy, assassination at a time of national prominence probably ensured far greater fame than would have a full career. King was a man of abiding flaws that would have become impossible to ignore. Also, once the traditional “civil rights” program of integration, voting rights, and racial preferences was achieved, he would have had to endorse ever-more radical demands — demands that would have cost white support — to keep from losing the limelight to Black Muslims, Black Panthers, and other militants. Indeed, although King is still an obligatory hero to whites, many blacks now think of him as something of a trimmer and a Tom, certainly in comparison to someone like Malcolm X.
Assassination, therefore, came at the perfect time to establish a glowing King legacy. It also came at the perfect time to establish for his widow and children a well-paid profession as bereaved family members of the Great Man and official custodians of the legacy.
The very year of the assassination, Mrs. Coretta King established the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. It has some exhibits and a gift shop, but its main job appears to be to cash in on martyrdom. The family’s pursuit of money has been so single-minded it has often made it hard for others to use King’s name and words, and its constant demand for royalties has sometimes blocked even the most favorable portrayals.
The Kings have copyrighted nearly every word the patriarch uttered, and are ruthless about asserting their rights. In 1993, for example, the family sued USA Today, which had celebrated the 30th anniversary of the 1,600-word “I Have a Dream” speech by reprinting it. The family would not relent, and the newspaper finally paid a $1,700 reprint fee, plus the King Center’s considerable legal costs. In the current era of abasement, few were rude enough to point out that such punctilious insistence on intellectual property rights ill becomes the family of a man who was, himself, a life-long plagiarist.
In 1996, the King Center sued CBS because it included excerpts from the “dream” speech in a five-part video series called The 20th Century with Mike Wallace. CBS had filmed the speech in 1963, and not surprisingly thought it had the right to its own archives. The King center thought otherwise, and sued for royalties, giving up only after it lost both in trial court and on appeal.
The saintly veil that has been cast over King and everything he touched has no doubt kept a lot of ugly maneuvering out of the public eye, but by 1987 the pattern was clear. That year, Mrs. King and the King Center sued Boston University to get back 83,000 King papers the university had held since the 1960s. The King Center already had more than 100,000 such papers but wanted every single one. After six years of legal skirmishing, the case went to trial. Boston University produced a 1964 letter from King saying his papers were to become the university’s “absolute property” upon his death. Mrs. King claimed never to have seen the letter. The university then produced a letter she herself had written in 1967 acknowledging the existence of the earlier letter. Mrs. King then switched tactics and insisted King had changed his mind about where the papers were to end up, but could show no evidence for this. A jury — including two blacks and a Hispanic — found for the university in 1987, but Mrs. King would not back down. She kept the appeal process going until she lost decisively in 1995.
When it comes to suing, the Kings judge not by the color of someone’s skin but by the content of his bank account. Henry Hampton is a black film producer who made the now-famous civil rights television series, Eyes on the Prize, which was broadcast in 1987 with a sequel in 1990. In 1992, the family demanded money from Mr. Hampton’s production company Blackside, Inc. because the series used footage of Rev. King. Mr. Hampton offered $100,000. The family sneered at this figure and launched what Mr. Hampton called “an aggressive attempt to get an enormous amount of money,” adding that “they seemed to have the notion that millions of dollars were available.” Several broadcasters that had planned to rerun the series shelved the idea for fear of being dragged into the suit. When the Kings refused to back down, Mr. Hampton countersued, charging that the family’s threats “had a chilling effect on Blackside’s right of free speech.” The parties eventually settled out of court for considerably less than the $100,000 Mr. Hampton had originally offered. The Kings clearly think lining their own pockets is more important than letting other people — no matter how admiring — spread the great man’s wisdom.
Everyone in the family seems to have an eye for swag, and some charge for interviews. According to a German television company, the youngest of King’s children, Bernice, “wanted to have $4,000 or $5,000 for one interview, ten minutes.”
By the time the Kings got into a fight with the National Park Service, their reputation for money-grubbing was so bad even liberals were disgusted. In 1980, the family had asked the Park Service to help administer the part of Atlanta now known as the King Historic District. This sycophantic designation includes King’s house and the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he preached. The feds turned the area into the third most popular historic site in America after the Statue of Liberty and Independence Hall in Philadelphia — and paid the King Center $535,000 a year for the privilege. In 1994, the Park Service started work on an $11.8 million visitor center across the street from the King Center. Although they had known of the project for years, the family waited until construction had begun before pushing for more money. Led by Rev. King’s son Dexter, the family announced the new center would cut into its own gift shop revenues and compete with an “interactive museum” they were thinking of building. As compensation, they asked the Park Service to triple its annual fee to $1.5 million. The service said no.
The Kings then held a press conference to explain that the bureaucrats they had worked with profitably for 15 years were now no better than James Earl Ray. Coretta King said, “The same evil forces that destroyed Martin Luther King are now trying to destroy my family. We are more determined than ever that they who slew the dreamer will not slay the dream.” Dexter King claimed the white man was at it again, trying “to annex this area to control the dissemination of history.” “Our history has always been diluted,” he explained; “we can tell our history. We know best.” Of course, the dream would remain unslain, all accusations of diluting history would be withdrawn, and the government could go ahead with its visitor center if the Park Service would only ante up another $1 million a year.
This was too much even for many blacks. Congressman John Lewis, who had been one of King’s collaborators, sided with the Park Service. Even Joseph Roberts, then minister of Ebenezer Baptist Church, called the King family’s demands “high-handed, dictatorial and undemocratic.” Cynthia Tucker, a black woman who edits the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s editorial page and who never misses a chance to shout “racism,” accused the Kings of “shortsighted leadership” and “profit mongering.” People began to point out that the King Center is supposed to be dedicated to “research, education and training in nonviolent philosophy and strategy,” but all it does is peddle “the legacy.” The Park Service went ahead with its visitor center but left some of the exhibits pointedly empty because the Kings refused to turn over papers and artifacts they had promised.
For years the family took the pious view that King’s image was not to be commercialized, and sued anyone so crude as to try. In 1982 the Georgia Supreme Court upheld its copyright on all representations of King, in a case against American Heritage Products, which was selling statuettes for $29.95. In 1996, however, the lure of lucre won out over piety. The center authorized a Lladro statue and rushed a series of pins and medallions onto the market in time for the Atlanta Olympics. A line of King-image personal checks is now available, and there is talk of a Hollywood biography that could be directed by Oliver Stone. In 1997, the family swung a deal with Time Warner to bring out MLK books, CDs, and a web page. Estimated revenue for the King Center: $10 million a year. Recently, the Kings have rented out the patriarch’s words and image for advertising. Atlanta-based Cingular, a cellular telephone company, and the French telecommunications company Alcatel have both run King ads. In one, King’s voice is featured with several others, including that of Kermit the Frog. There is no telling what could come next, now that Dexter King has visited Graceland — twice — to see how the Elvis “legacy” is marketed.
In 1995, the family once more set its priorities straight by shutting down the King holiday commission. Mrs. King had spent ten years building up the organization, which promoted celebration of the King national holiday. As soon as it reached a certain prominence, it became a fund-raising competitor to the King Center. It was best to kill the commission — which only promoted King and “civil rights,” after all — so as to clear the field for the center that pays the King family salaries.
Another recent money-grub has once again been over papers. In 1999, the family condescended to let the Library of Congress take custody of the papers still in Atlanta, in a deal that would keep the copyright firmly in family hands. The King Center would no longer have to bother with looking after 100,000 papers, but could still charge fat reprint fees. The family had had the papers appraised for $40 million, so it pronounced itself generous in offering custody for a mere $20 million. The library didn’t see it that way. It expects to have full use of personal papers in its collections, not just the joy of knowing they are there, and gets most of its materials by donation. Its most expensive purchase ever was a $1.5 million 1930 acquisition of medieval manuscripts that included a Gutenberg Bible. Even the U. S. Congress, which will usually do anything in the name of racial atonement, jibbed at $20 million, and the King family is no longer pushing the deal.
The latest example of eye-opening greed is the King family’s demand for a hefty “licensing” fee to let the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial planned for the Washington Mall use the King name. In 1996, President Clinton signed legislation setting aside four acres adjoining the tidal basin, and promising full maintenance for the memorial, but no federal funds can be used to build it. There is a deadline of November 2003, to scrape together $100 million for the thing, but major donors are unwilling to stump up so long as the King family refuses to release the name. Tommy Hilfiger had promised $5 million and General Motors was going to give $10 million, but they will not write checks until the “licensing” problem is cleared up.
A monument on the Capitol Mall is about the highest honor the nation can pay. Leave it to the King family to see it as a chance to screw more money out of people. At one point, they were about to offer the King name for a flat $600,000 but are now back to dickering over a percentage of the money raised for the memorial.
There is some fear that Alpha Phi Alpha, which was King’s fraternity and is the group leading the project, may have to ask Congress to extend the seven-year fund-raising period. General Motors has already provided $750,000 for “setup activities,” but that is long gone. At least a third of it disappeared in September, 2000, in connection with a lavish celebration announcing the winner of the memorial design competition. It would be a blessing to the country if the King family’s greed were so great it kept the Mall free of the memorial, but Congress will certainly vote an extension of the fund-raising period if it is needed, and whites will eventually offer enough money to satisfy the poor, grieving, bereaved family.
Which, of course, is the real problem. It is easy to scoff at the King family’s transparent greed, but who is to blame? Mrs. King and the children can be forgiven for thinking “Dr.” King was the most important American — perhaps the most important human — who ever lived. He and Jesus Christ alone share the distinction of federal holidays on their birthdays. King, who stands far higher in official estimation than such slaveholding wretches as George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, is an American saint who brought the promise of American liberty and democracy to full fruition. It is whites, of course, who have led or at least acquiesced in a canonization they could have stopped any time. All the black frauds and con-men like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, and every one of their local variants would be nobodies if whites didn’t pay attention to them.
But in letting the King myth expand to preposterous size whites have sorely burdened the King family. It is not easy being the child or widow of a saint. We can hardly expect such people to have anything like a normal sense of propriety and even less to dirty their hands in the unglamorous business of “non-violent social change.”
What is more, whites no longer need much help from blacks to promote whatever is meant by “civil rights.” They are past masters at confessing to “racism,” apologizing for their history and culture, and promoting multiracialism and their own dispossession. Why should the King family bother with that sort of thing when whites perform like trained seals already? Far better just to get on with the pleasant business of getting rich.