Part of a dream gets badly mixed up

Hunter Gray hunterbadbear at
Tue Apr 9 18:39:32 MDT 2002

Note by Hunterbear:

Thirty-five or so years ago, no one would have foreseen this controversy --
and anyone who would have predicted it would've been judged either
ridiculous or malicious.  I know or knew almost all of the civil rights
people mentioned in this article -- living and dead -- including Martin
King. I worked with them.  [I do not know the King children.]  I have a tie
with Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.  I have met Clay Carson a couple of times
but, though a historian, he is not at all a Movement vet.

My opinion -- for what it's worth?

In the more narrow sense, the King family has -- as the genuinely excellent
C.T. Vivian suggests -- the right to make these decisions.  And, if the
family can [as it seems to], it has the right to live very comfortably.  But
this has obviously gone well beyond that -- into a kind of canyon where much
of the snarly manzanita and black-jack [scrub oak] come from and run in
directions quite antithetical to the vigorous and sensitive radical humanism
of the man whose short physical stature always so surprised me -- given his
very high mountains of courage and commitment and his vision which went to
the four corners of the universe.  All of that  placed -- and very
consistently so -- the highest premium on serving one's community, the whole
human family, rather than in ever serving oneself.

One can climb out of even this kind of canyon.  It can be done.  It takes
very hard work and the development of an enduring commitment to the Sun and

Hunter Gray  [ Hunterbear ]  ( social justice )
Protected by Na´shdo´i´ba´i´

  By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 8, 2002; Page A01

ATLANTA -- After the lights were dimmed in the elegant ballroom of a
downtown hotel here this past January, a video presentation rolled. Within
minutes, one of the most influential voices in American history cut through
the darkness, saying, "I have a dream." It was, of course, the Rev. Martin
Luther King Jr.

But on this occasion -- the annual dinner hosted by the King Center -- those
famous words weren't meant as an introduction to King's plea for racial
equality. They were part of a promotion by Target Corp., which was heralding
its work to help keep the dream alive by renovating the center's gift shop.

Several diners in the audience openly groaned.

It's been 34 years since King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, but on this
anniversary the talk is increasingly about whether his family is more
consumed with using the King name to cut rich corporate deals to enrich the
estate than with promoting his legacy.

King died in Memphis while planning a massive poor people's march on
Washington, yet over the past few years the family estate -- led by his
41-year-old second son, Dexter Scott King -- has sought to sell the rights
to his works and name to corporate bidders such as Alcatel, Cingular
Wireless and AOL Time Warner.

With the family's permission, the Alcatel and Cingular communications
companies featured King in a pair of television commercials pitching their
products. The family has also supported congressional legislation that would
allow the Library of Congress, to which material is usually donated, to
purchase papers in the King Center archives for $20 million.

Last year, the Kings stood in the way of an effort by the nonprofit Alpha
Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., of which King was a member, to erect a memorial
in his honor at the Tidal Basin on the National Mall. The family wanted a
fee for the right to use King's image.

"If nobody's going to make money off of it, why should anyone get a fee?"
asked the Rev. Joseph Lowery, a former president of the Southern Christian
Leadership Conference, which was co-founded by King. "I don't think it's a
mortal sin for them to ask for money, but I think it's a venial sin."

Other institutions named after American icons rely heavily on grants,
endowments and the sale of intellectual works for money, as the King Center
has. But the family has departed from the image of caretakers of former
presidents John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, and Malcolm Shabazz, formerly
Malcolm X, among others, in allowing companies to use King as a corporate
pitchman and even as the subject of a proposed interactive theme park.

NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, who was active in the civil rights movement, has
criticized the family. Two of King's closer allies in the movement, Hosea
Williams, who served as sergeant-at-arms in the SCLC, and James Farmer, a
co-founder of the Congress of Racial Equality, spoke out against the family
before their deaths.

"I think the family is seeking profit," Farmer told the Dallas Morning News
in 1998, "and I don't think Martin would have approved." Farmer died a year
later, and Williams died in 2000.

Dexter King declined nearly a dozen requests for an interview. Robert
Vickers, a spokesman for Intellectual Property Management, which represents
the King Center, asked for and received a list of questions, but did not

Staunch supporters of the Kings spoke to The Washington Post on the family's
behalf, however. They said the Kings have a right to produce income from
their patriarch's intellectual works, and that criticizing them for
enforcing their copyright is shameful.

"I am firmly of the opinion that the family needs to decide the image of
Martin Luther King," said the Rev. C.T. Vivian, a former director of SCLC
affiliates under King. "No one else is capable of determining what that
should be."

Vivian said the family's critics assume "they have a right to say the family
should not be rich and well-off. As far as I'm concerned, they're the first
family of black America. I want Martin's children's children to be well-off,
to be secure and have whatever they want."

Americans often fawn over the "I Have a Dream" speech. But shortly before he
was killed, King said that his dream of racial equality could not be
realized unless black Americans achieved economic parity with white people.

Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project at
Stanford University, said the nation's lofty expectations of the King family
are unfair. "I didn't hear a peep out of people when the government paid
tens of millions of dollars to get the Nixon papers," he said. "And he was a
public official on the public payroll.

"When the Kennedys sell Jackie's stuff, they get a free pass," Carson said.
"If the King kids had done exactly the same thing, had their mother died,
they would have taken a huge hit. It's just amazing to me that there's this
double standard."

Nothing's wrong with entrepreneurship and using King's name as a brand,
Carson said. "Quite frankly, I don't see how it's any different from the
Disney corporation saying, 'We own Mickey Mouse, and if you want Mickey
Mouse on your pages you have to pay a fee.' "

But critics say there's a difference between promoting King and promoting
Mickey Mouse. And they are worried that Dexter King, who bears a striking
resemblance to his father, is running the King Center as if it were Disney.

After taking control of the King Center from his mother, Coretta Scott King,
in 1995, Dexter King traveled to Memphis to consult with the managers of
Elvis Presley's gaudy Graceland estate for tips on how to market an icon.

During that trip, King didn't seek an audience with Arun Gandhi, who runs
the Memphis-based M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence in honor of his
grandfather, Mohandas Gandhi. Arun Gandhi had been trying to talk with
anyone in the King family since he founded the Memphis institute in 1991.

"They don't want to be a part of what I'm doing, and they don't give any
reasons for it either," Gandhi said. It doesn't seem to matter that Mohandas
Gandhi's teachings were the inspiration behind King's philosophy of
nonviolence. "After a while, I gave up asking for cooperation," Gandhi said.
"I just do what I do."

Dexter King returned to Atlanta from Graceland, determined to build an
interactive theme park devoted to his father. A critic viciously mocked the
idea, calling the proposed park "I Have a Dreamland." The name stuck, and
the idea faded, but King went on to sign a deal with AOL Time Warner to
distribute his father's works. He boasted that it might eventually bring the
estate $30 million to $50 million.

Meanwhile, the King Center is falling apart. Holes in the brownish carpet
leading to its display rooms are patched with silvery duct tape. Black
blotches of gum discarded by tourists haven't been scraped away.

A journalist visiting the center from Ohio this year wrote that he was
appalled by the stench in a men's restroom. "I had been greatly disappointed
by the dismal and dirty circumstances I found at Dr. King's final resting
place," Mansfield B. Frazier wrote.

"The grounds of the building hadn't been properly maintained, and the men's
restroom was in deplorable condition," Frazier wrote.

The center is no longer active in teaching nonviolence, its original
mission. Part of the problem is money. Dexter King laid off much of the
staff to help erase a $600,000 debt when he took over seven years ago,
declaring that the center was never meant to be a civil rights organization.

In subsequent years, tax records show, the center's income from donations
and grants steadily fell. Nevertheless, Dexter King pays himself a salary of
$149,000, the kind of paycheck his mother never received.

While the center languishes in Atlanta, its director lives 3,000 miles away
in a beach house in Malibu, Calif., where he's pursuing an acting career.

Last year, he portrayed his father in a television movie, "The Rosa Parks
Story." In a story about Dexter King and his brother, Martin Luther King
III, Gentleman's Quarterly reporter Matthew Teague wrote that Dexter could
not remember a few sentences from his father's speech to a church gathering.
The director, frustrated, turned to cue cards.

In a dressing room trailer afterward, Teague wrote, Dexter King -- who was
only 2 during the march on Washington -- commented that the King Center,
which he directs, teaches six principles of social nonviolence. Teague asked
what those were. More than 15 minutes later, King was able to recall only

D. Louise Cook, a former director of the King Center archives and museum,
said Coretta King once asked her to give her son Dexter a job after he left
an Atlanta college in the mid-1980s. Cook put him to work transcribing one
of his father's speeches. "He didn't last the day," Cook said.

Since retiring in 1987, Cook has refused to return to the King Center,
because "it would break my heart," she said. Conditions were bad enough
while she was there, she said.

"Windows in certain parts of the floor in the archive needed special screens
to block out light so they didn't damage the documents," she said. "But they
would never replace those. There are leaks of water lines, no money to buy
supplies. They had many directors of development -- fundraising people --
and they would leave out of sheer frustration."

During her stay, Cook developed a measure of respect for Coretta King, even
when they argued. Coretta King was prophetic, holding on to the papers
containing her husband's powerful words and reflections even though
appraisers told her after his death that the papers weren't worth much.

"She thought it was her main legacy to the kids," Cook said. "She proved to
be right."

Cook said it upset her when Coretta King wouldn't allow the papers to be
viewed, even after accepting thousands of dollars in grants from the
National Endowment for the Humanities to make them available for public

"I had to fight her," Cook said. "It was a pitched battle, but her lawyer
told her she'd better to do this. She was concerned about the money. She had
the experience during King's life where he gave away a lot of money, he had
no property. He left nothing for the kids. She had always had a concern
about how to support the family."

Coretta King believes she has not been credited for her accomplishments.
Because of her work at the King Center, she said, there will be another
civil rights movement. "We've put a lot of stuff out there; a lot of people
have gone forth," she said. "I'm very pleased with what I have done in terms
of being faithful to the legacy."

But what about the Alcatel commercial that had King huckstering for the
company's communications technology, and the Cingular advertisement where
the esteemed leader was placed with Kermit the Frog, a Muppet singing about
"dreamers like me"?

And what of the King memorial? The organizers trying to build it, the Alpha
Phi Alpha fraternity, need $50 million by fall 2003 to break ground -- a
deadline set by Congress. Raising funds has been difficult, and the last
thing the fraternity says it needs is to have to pay a generous license fee
to the Kings.

When outrage poured in from black Americans after the fee made news, Dexter
King issued a statement saying the family supported the memorial and did not
seek the fee. But that same statement said negotiations involving a
permissions fee were ongoing.

"If this family stops this monument from being built, they will never stop
hearing from me," said Cynthia Tucker, the editorial page editor for the
Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a frequent critic of the Kings. "I can't
believe that they'd interfere with this project. Even their supporters are
so frustrated that they're finally speaking out."

© 2002 The Washington Post Company


Hunter Gray  [ Hunterbear ]  ( social justice )
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