When a terse press release went out earlier this month announcing that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s youngest daughter, Bernice King, had joined her two brothers as an executive at the eponymous, family-controlled MLK Center for Nonviolent Social Change, it sounded as if the famously warring King siblings had finally put their squabbles behind them.
No such luck.
Scarcely a week later, Martin Luther King III, the oldest son, mysteriously resigned as president of the King Center — doubly odd because only days earlier he'd publicly announced ambitious plans to remodel and expand the center.
But Martin's resignation letter and a follow-up interview with veteran business reporter Maria Saporta have since revealed his reasons. Sadly, they suggest Atlanta can expect more of the embarrassing, legacy-besmirching behavior for which the King kids have become notorious.
At the same time the King Center board brought on Bernice, it also placed control of the center in the hands of King Inc., the for-profit corporation run by younger brother Dexter King. That arrangement will make it easier for Dexter, Bernice, and the other family members who make up the board to squeeze every ounce of profit from the King Center, which has historically operated as a charitable foundation. Martin hints that his kin bounced him from the CEO's job and replaced him with Bernice because he objected to the plan to monetize his father's tomb.
Readers with long memories will recall the King kids' previous efforts to turn the MLK legacy into cold, hard cash. The early warning came in 1993, when they sued USA Today for reprinting their father's "I Have a Dream" speech on MLK Day without first paying them off. The speech has since been removed from school textbooks because the authors couldn't afford the royalties. And yet, when their price is met, no use seems inappropriate: i.e., using the speech to advertise Cingular cell phone service in 2001.
Following the death of Coretta Scott King, Dexter sued Bernice to get his hands on their mother's private letters because he'd already signed a book deal to print them.
In 2008, singer Harry Belafonte, one of their father's closest associates, cancelled plans to auction some of the handwritten MLK speeches he'd been given — with the proceeds earmarked for charities — to avoid litigation after the King kids accused him of having "wrongly acquired" documents. Not that the King kids have issues with selling history; they'd put boxes of their father's papers on the auction block in 2006 before then-Mayor Shirley Franklin negotiated a $32 million deal to keep them in Atlanta.
And, just last year, the foundation creating the MLK National Monument in Washington, D.C., was forced to pony up $800,000 to the King kids in order to license the Civil Rights leader's likeness and words.
We've criticized the decision to build the planned Center for Civil and Human Rights next to the World of Coke instead of on Auburn Avenue, but you can hardly blame that center's organizers for wanting to keep their distance from the King Center.
After decades of having a crumbling, inactive King Center — as opposed to the well-maintained, federally run MLK National Historic Site across the street — it seems Atlanta will soon see the place leveraged for maximum profitability. If you see Andy Young, encourage him to have a get-tough talk with the King kids, but we're guessing it won't help.
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