Cashing in on Martin Luther King Jr.

The children of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King appear in a 2006 file photo; from left, Dexter Scott King, Rev. Bernice King, Yolanda King and Martin Luther King III. Yolanda King passed away in 2006.
The children of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King appear in a 2006 file photo; from left, Dexter Scott King, Rev. Bernice King, Yolanda King and Martin Luther King III. Yolanda King passed away in 2006.
(Ric Feld / Associated Press)
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The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. often spoke of public charity and how every person “must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.” It is a lesson that appears lost on his own children.

The King family has long been criticized for insisting on payment for the use of their father’s name, image, speeches and virtually anything that they can claim for themselves or their foundation. The family reached a new low this week when it was revealed that they had been paid more than $800,000 by the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation for the use of King’s image and words on the planned King memorial on Washington’s Mall.

Martin Luther King Jr.: An Op-Ed article Wednesday about the King family referred to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 Nobel Peace Prize. He won the prize in 1964. —

For many years, the family has insisted that althoughKing may have been called the nation’s prophet, he is their property. Of course, it is the profits, and not the prophet himself, that has led them regularly to court to fight over royalties and control.

The surviving children of King have been feuding in court since July, when daughter Bernice and son Martin Luther King III filed a lawsuit against their brother, Dexter, chief executive of the family corporation, King Inc., accusing him of misusing funds. He countersued, saying they had obstructed the goals of the King Center. The siblings’ most recent battle involved a $1.4-million book deal with New York publisher Penguin Group for a ghostwritten memoir of Coretta Scott King. Dexter King went to court to compel his siblings to turn over photographs and personal papers for the project. The siblings resisted, saying that their mother had decided before her death that she no longer wanted author Barbara Reynolds to do the book.


“Nobody has the monopoly on Martin and Coretta Scott King,” Bernice King told the Associated Press in an interview. “This is ours, and it should be governed that way.” When she says “ours,” she is not referring to the nation. Indeed, the only thing the three living King offspring seem able to agree on is that anyone wanting to further their father’s legacy should pay for the privilege.

During the 1990s, King’s children sued USA Today for publishing and CBS for broadcasting their father’s “I Have a Dream” speech without payment -- and they won. In 1999, a federal appeals court ruled that the speech could be claimed as property because the family refused to release it into the public domain. CNN had to buy the rights to broadcast the speech to the nation.

In 1997, the Kings signed a multimedia publishing deal with Time Warner reportedly worth $30 million to $50 million. Although often criticized by scholars for limiting access to King material, the family sold the right to use the “I Have a Dream” speech in commercials for the electronics companies Alcatel and Cingular. They also sought to sell King documents to private bidders in an auction. Philanthropists quickly acted to buy the historical material to prevent its loss.

Nothing is too small for the family to ignore. Isaac Newton Farris, King’s nephew and chief executive officer of the King Center in Atlanta, demanded payments for images showing President Obama and King on the same T-shirts. “We’re not trying to stop anybody from legitimately supporting themselves,” Farris said. “But we cannot allow our brand to be abused.” It is hard to imagine King himself demanding payment from someone who wanted to put his image alongside that of the nation’s first African American president.

In the latest monumental shakedown, the King family’s Intellectual Properties Management Inc. was paid $761,160 by the nonprofit foundation raising money for the Washington memorial. This was on top of a “management” fee of $71,700 paid in 2003. The Kings have defended the payments by noting that donations to the foundation have been down because people were giving to the monument fund instead. The other possibility is that fewer people want to give to a foundation run by the King family.

Few people familiar with the family are shocked by their demands. What is shocking is the failure of the memorial foundation to call their bluff and simply stop work on the memorial. Foundation officials should have publicly announced the payment so that donors could think seriously about whether they want to contribute to such an outrageous arrangement. Instead, officials waited for the Associated Press to force the disclosure. Donors have complained that they were never told of the arrangement.


Congress, which has already given $10 million for the project, should have conditioned public support on a waiver of such claims, and should now demand repayment for the amount given to the King Center. Former presidents waive their property claims over presidential material when they are honored with free libraries; it seems only right that the King family waive rights to famous speeches such as “I Have a Dream” as a precondition for this honor.

King himself was so opposed to appearing to profit from his work that when he won the 1968 Nobel Peace Prize, he gave the proceeds to charity. The insistence on payment for the use of the “I Have a Dream” speech is a particular outrage. King gave that speech to a nation -- and a nation responded by rallying to his cause of public service and justice.

In that speech, King proclaimed to a nation that “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Today, we have accomplished things that King could only dream of, including our first African American president. I expect, however, that he would be a bit disappointed in the recent actions of those now-grown children. If they were to be judged by their character, the verdict would surely make King’s towering granite statute blush.

Jonathan Turley is a law professor at George Washington University.