By Bankole Thompson
CHRONICLE SENIOR EDITOR
It was only a couple of weeks ago that the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice began with recognitions from Presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter to political and civic leaders.
And all throughout this year several organizations, institutions and individuals will be remembering the impact and effect of the world’s premier peace officer Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the case he made on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial Aug. 28, 1963.
Like many I too was in Washington the weekend of the observance of the anniversary that produced the “I Have a Dream” speech and further solidified King in what Time Magazine’s 50th tribute called America’s “Modern Day Founding Father.”
I began my day at Boling Airforce Base where I was invited to attend a national leadership breakfast that honored civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis, the only living member of the original speakers at the March on Washington.
At the breakfast attended by a cross-section of officials from government, civic, corporate and other sectors, all for once appearing to acknowledge not only King but also some of his lieutenants like Lewis who today embodies the movement.
But in that room something was amiss about the legacy of King, especially when Lewis began challenging some of the young people invited to the celebration to emulate the works of civil rights champions and take up the mantle of leadership.
What was amiss as I watched Lewis beckon on young people to lead by example recollecting King’s courage and boldness by citing anecdotes, was the fact that the children of Dr. King have been entangled in a bitter court battle over the image, intellectual property and memorabilia of the slain civil rights leader.
That his two sons Martin Luther King III and Dexter King and their sister Bernice King are locked up in a new round of legal battles over who controls their father’s legacy is a sad and revealing commentary on the children of the first family of the American civil rights movement.
So sad it was that on the official anniversary of the March on Washington, Aug. 28, Dr. King’s estate controlled by Martin and Dexter filed a complaint in Fulton County Court against Bernice who runs the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.
Martin and Dexter claimed in their filing that the estate they oversee owns the worldwide rights and property interests dealing with King’s image, name, likeness, recorded voice and memorabilia. That means his writings, speeches, sermons, correspondents and including the remains and coffin of King.
Following an audit of the King Center run by Bernice which was once granted license to use King’s image, Martin and Dexter warned Bernice they would put her on administrative leave in the wake of an audit that showed lack of proper care of the memorabilia at the center.
Citing what it called “total breakdown in communication and transparency,” the two brothers took their sister to court again over control of the legacy of a man who donated the financial rewards of his Nobel Peace Prize to the civil rights movement, only for his children to fight over his legacy fifty years after his death.
In his “I Have a Dream Speech” King pleaded with the nation to judge his kids not on the basis of color but character, which shows the kind of hope he had for his children.
This latest court battle is even more disturbing given that it is about a man who was a champion of peace, and as the world marks International Day of Peace Sep 21, it is important that the children of King reflect on the negative and debilitating impact their court battles have on the movements for peace and social justice.
Granted, that conflict is inescapable in human experience, the challenge therefore, becomes how the children should look at the bigger picture, the weight of history that informs our present dispensation and how they engage in mutual compromise.
To even file a complaint in court on the anniversary of the March on Washington is very telling and somewhat sacrilegious to the memory of King. It doesn’t suggest any sensitivity on their part about keeping the legacy of King on what the civil rights leader himself calls the “high plains of dignity.”
It is disheartening to watch a bitter public fight among the King children over the memory of a man who singlehandedly touched the world.
Preserving King’s legacy should be more than diamonds, silver or gold because King himself noted in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech at the University of Oslo in 1964, that the beauty of genuine brotherhood and peace should trump financial gain.
“I think Alfred Nobel would know what I mean when I say that I accept this award in the spirit of a curator of some precious heirloom which he holds in trust for its true owners – all those to whom beauty is truth and truth beauty – and in whose eyes the beauty of genuine brotherhood and peace is more precious than diamonds or silver or gold,” King said in concluding his Nobel speech.
Even the erection of the Washington D.C. Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial led by Harry E. Johnson Sr. and the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity paid the King children $3 million in licensing fees that came from the MLK Memorial Project Foundation in exchange for allowing the foundation to use King’s words in raising money to build a monument for King at the National Mall, the first for an African American.