An Unsettled Chapter in Martin Luther King’s Legacy
By Richard Fausset
ATLANTA — The legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. seems to be everywhere these days with the success of the film “Selma,” which begins with his being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
It has been a hot topic among historians, who have debated whether the film adequately depicts the interplay between the civil rights leader and President Lyndon B. Johnson.
And it took on renewed prominence in Atlanta on Monday when Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia, in his Inaugural Address, reminded residents that a statue of Dr. King would soon be erected on the State Capitol grounds.
At the same time, a decidedly less heroic aspect of his legacy has been playing out here in court filings and hearings as his three surviving children work through a pair of lawsuits over the disputed ownership of their father’s Bible and Nobel Prize medal, and the licensing of his intellectual property.
The disputes are the latest in a series of dispiriting legal tussles involving Dr. King’s children, who have squabbled in the past among themselves — and with others — over the ownership of their father’s personal effects and the stewardship of his legacy. Along the way, they have found themselves at odds with some of Dr. King’s most famous friends and confidants, including Harry Belafonte, the actor and singer, and Andrew Young, the former United States ambassador to the United Nations and mayor of Atlanta.
For all the good will the King name brings, many here are exasperated.
“It is hard to fathom how the important legacy that the competing parties claim to be seeking to protect will be well served by yet another very public airing of the disputes and squabbles that have sadly divided the King family in recent years,” Judge Robert McBurney of Fulton County Superior Court wrote in an order attached to one of the recent suits.
In a hearing Tuesday morning, Judge McBurney could rule on whether the annotated Bible and Nobel medal belong to the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr. Inc. In January, two of the three directors — the brothers Dexter King and Martin Luther King III — voted to sell the items. Their sister, Bernice King, the third director, opposed.
Judge McBurney could also delay a ruling or send the case to trial. A tentative trial date is Feb. 16.
The second lawsuit was filed by the Dr. King estate against the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change on Aug. 28, 2013, the 50th anniversary of his “I Have a Dream” speech. The King Center, a nonprofit, is one of the historic and commemorative buildings dedicated to Dr. King that are among Atlanta’s top tourist draws. Ms. King is its chief executive officer.
In the complaint, lawyers for the estate claim that it had been the single largest financial contributor to the King Center over the past decade, but that the two entities had recently suffered “a total breakdown in communication and transparency.” The lawyers also claimed that some of Dr. King’s personal effects were being stored in an “unacceptable” way by the center.
The lawyers also said that the estate would agree not to end an intellectual property licensing agreement with the King Center if the center made a number of changes, including placing Ms. King on administrative leave and removing Mr. Young from its board.
Mr. Young, the complaint said, had breached his fiduciary duty “by willfully infringing upon Plaintiff’s intellectual property in commercial ventures and disregarding Defendant’s policies.”
Mr. Young, whose website counts him as a current King Center board member, did not return calls for comment Monday. Nor did lawyers for Ms. King, the King Center or the estate.
Supporters of the family over the years have noted that Dr. King copyrighted his work, and meant it to retain value and offer sustenance for his family. His survivors have reportedly sought payment from CNN for the right to broadcast the “I Have a Dream” speech. In 2006, the family sold a trove of Dr. King’s documents for $32 million after a group of civic and business leaders, led by Atlanta’s then-mayor, Shirley Franklin, raised the money amid concerns that they would be auctioned off.
They are now housed at Dr. King’s alma mater, Morehouse College.
But other ownership matters have been hashed out in court. Coretta Scott King unsuccessfully sued Boston University in 1986 in an effort to regain control of 83,000 documents her husband left to the school. In 2011, the King children unsuccessfully sued to prevent Dr. King’s former secretary from selling about 100 documents in her possession.
In 2013, Mr. Belafonte, a close friend of Dr. King’s, sued the three surviving children in federal court after he tried to sell documents that they claimed had been taken without permission.
A number of lawsuits among the King siblings arose after their mother’s death in 2006. But by 2010, they appeared to have reconciled; Ms. King said that she was “proud that my brothers and I are speaking with one voice to communicate our parents’ legacy to the world.”
Their father might have been proud, too. In a speech to striking Memphis sanitation workers in 1968, he invoked the Old Testament and Pharaoh’s divide-and-conquer tactics among his subjects. “Now let us maintain unity,” he said.
In the case of his children, it would not last.
Alan Blinder contributed reporting.