M.L. King III: Father's Path Hard to Follow

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Not far from downtown, on a smooth round stone with water spilling over it, read the names of those who gave their lives to the civil rights movement. A beautifully crafted memorial, the last entry etched in the rock is Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King III essentially drags that stone behind him wherever he goes, and the burden increased recently when his own organization assailed him for not living up to his father's name.

"Every day people come up to him and say, 'Oh, your father was this, and, oh, your father was that,' " said E. Randel T. Osburn, a reverend and a friend. "If you're around Martin much, you can tell he never gets used to it."

He doesn't inspire people, his detractors say, he doesn't have his father's oratorical gifts (though few do), and this summer he was temporarily suspended as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights group that the elder King founded in 1957.

This weekend King will have a chance to prove himself. The SCLC is holding its annual convention in Montgomery, the town where his father got his start.

The 43-year-old King last week released a statement defending himself and promising to sharpen the focus of his organization. He did not return phone calls for this story, but those within the SCLC say the key issues King will concentrate on are racial profiling, prisoners' rights and closing the digital divide between whites and blacks. His challenge will be staying true to the organization's proud heritage while comporting with the times.

The recent barrage of criticism has knocked the lid loose on longer-simmering resentments. The King family used to be untouchable. Now they're fair game, especially Martin, the eldest son.

"What's he really done in life?" asked Tommie Miller, head of the Montgomery Improvement Assn., another old-time civil rights organization. "Most people tend to follow a self-made man."

The elder King's success in the civil rights era has made it harder for his son to follow in his footsteps.

"The issues that gave birth to the SCLC are not around anymore," said Ronald Walters, director of the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland. "There aren't signs pointing out which one is the colored water fountain. Discrimination these days is more subtle."

In its heyday, the SCLC made a name for itself mobilizing against Jim Crow laws. Back then, the issues were clear--voting restrictions and segregated public facilities--and were ripe for confronting head-on.

The SCLC's network of Baptist preachers called out from pulpits across the South for protests, boycotts, sit-ins and marches. The ministers helped lead the Montgomery bus boycott, the voting rights march from Selma and the historic civil rights rally in Washington in 1963.

But these days, most civil rights issues don't lend themselves as well to such tactics. The battles for equal protection and affirmative action, for example, are fought in the courtroom and the boardroom, not in the streets.

Mass protests have "died out almost everywhere," Walters said. Last fall's election crisis in Florida "could have been handled like that--and Marty should have been visible there. But nobody in his generation has the mobilizing skills of the old SCLC."

Osburn, the SCLC's executive vice president and a King loyalist, said it's difficult to live up to such expectations.

Just like the elder King, the SCLC has been mythologized too, he argued.

"We were never the organization," Osburn said. "There was always the [National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People] and other groups. Part of our problem is reckoning with this nostalgia."

Since King's murder in 1968, the SCLC has watched its profile slide. Other groups, such as the NAACP and the Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition--though they've had their problems--have risen in prominence.

The SCLC, headquartered in Atlanta, promotes its cause with a tight network of 70 chapters from New York to Texas. Some of its activities since King became president in 1998 include hearings on police brutality, a rally for the 37th anniversary of the "I Have a Dream" speech and a successful campaign to change the Georgia state flag, which used to feature a large Confederate cross.

But the passion just isn't there, said several SCLC board members.

"We got to get back to the streets," said Richard Turner, a 72-year-old carpenter in rural Georgia. "Talk ain't worth a damn if you don't do something."

In June, board Chairman Claud Young, a Detroit physician, sent King a letter reprimanding him.

"You have consistently been insubordinate and displayed inappropriate, obstinate behavior in the negligent carrying out of your duties as president of SCLC. To that end, consider yourself noticed," he wrote.

Young then put King, who does not get paid for his job, on administrative leave. A week later he reinstated him.

"I felt we had to use a 2-by-4 to get his attention," Young said.

Board members were disappointed that King had not played a more active role in the election recount in Florida, where many blacks said they were disenfranchised of their vote. He's also been criticized for not joining the battle against AIDS. Talking about condoms makes him feel uncomfortable, King said.

Many people insist King should not measure himself in terms of his father.

"He may feel that pressure," Walters said. "But somebody like MLK is going to come around only once in a lifetime."

Martin III was 10 when his father was killed. He grew up in Vine City, an urban neighborhood of Atlanta, and studied politics at Morehouse College. At 29, he won a seat on the Fulton County Commission but was ousted seven years later after it was disclosed he owed more than $200,000 in back taxes.

Besides heading the SCLC and making speeches nationwide, his main occupation has been managing his father's estate. He and other members of the King family were recently criticized for selling the rights to the "I Have a Dream" speech so it could be used in a cell phone commercial with Kermit the Frog.

King, a bachelor, rarely socializes, and sometimes Osburn worries about him working too hard.

"Watching him is like watching somebody trying to outrun themselves," he said. "It's like there's a ghost in front of him and he's always trying to catch it."

Big, bearded and somewhat shy, he lives with his mother in the same house where he grew up.

"He's an articulate guy," said William Boone, a political science professor at Clark Atlanta University. "But maybe civil rights isn't his thing."

His younger brother, Dexter, is an actor. One sister, Yolanda, is a drama teacher, and the other, Bernice, is a minister.

His mother declined to be interviewed. But in her memoirs, "My Life With Martin Luther King Jr.," Coretta Scott King foreshadowed the struggle her son would face.

"On October 23, 1957, our son, Martin Luther King III, was born. We were deeply thankful and happy; Martin of course was ecstatic," she wrote. "I always had reservations about naming our first son for his father, realizing the burdens it can create for the child. But Martin had always said he wanted his son to be named Martin Luther III."

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Times researcher Edith Stanley contributed to this story.

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