Martin L. King III said he left the nonprofit center that bears his father’s name over concerns about its future and relationship with the for-profit entity that handles licensing of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s likeness and words.
In an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Martin King said his concerns about the blurring of lines between the nonprofit King Center and the for-profit King Inc. left him with no choice but to leave the organization he had led for 18 months.
This month, the center’s seven-person board of mainly family members removed King as CEO, replacing him with his sister, Bernice King. At the same time, Martin King, still bearing the title of president, said he was stripped of his executive powers and responsibility, leaving his position little more than a “ceremonial” one.
“I disagree with the new direction of the board, which makes the center essentially an extension of King Inc. rather than acknowledge the fundamentally different and at times conflicting motives of a for-profit corporation vs. a public foundation,” King wrote in a resignation letter he submitted to the board Jan. 17. “The convergence of the two entities is evidenced by the placement of King Inc. staff in control of the center, including the interim managing director position.”
But while King is citing philosophical differences, a person close to the situation is claiming that King was stripped of his powers in essence because he wasn’t a good leader.
Houston attorney Terry M. Giles, who was appointed by a judge to serve as the custodian of King Inc., said as president and CEO of the King Center, King was not moving the organization forward.
Giles, who is applying through the Fulton County Superior Court to be the custodian of the King Center as well, said that during King’s time at the helm, virtually no fundraising had been done to “assure the future and proper care of the center.”
In essence, the whole of the King estate is divided into two parts, King Inc. and the King Center.
The King Center was launched in 1968 by Coretta Scott King as a place to carry on her late husband’s work in peace, civil rights and nonviolence.
King Inc. was established later as the financial arm of the family, controlling the use of King’s image and words. King Inc. has taken in millions and has been a major guardian of King’s likeness — often suing big and small companies over unauthorized usage.
Martin King, who admits he benefits financially from the money that King Inc. makes, said the two organization’s missions should remain distinct.
“I cannot support the appearance of conflating the institutions for commercial purpose,” he said. “Because I was not willing to go along with that position, that is one of the reasons that I believe the board decided to take away the responsibilities that I had as it relates to the King Center.”
But Giles said Martin King had missed goals, including a plan to expand the King Center’s board to 15 by January.
The center now plans to go through with that plan, putting a full board in place by June, Giles said Friday. Three potential board members have been identified, but he declined to name them.
“It needs to have leaders in the community,” Giles said. “It needs to be one of the larger and stronger boards in the country.”
In its current form, the board consists of Martin King; Bernice King; their brother, Dexter King; their aunt, Christina King Farris; longtime King confidant and former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young; and two cousins, Alveda King and Arturo Bagley. It was that board that removed Martin King as CEO, although Farris abstained and Young did not participate in the Jan. 5 meeting, which was conducted as a conference call.
Although he could not speak specifically about the King Center or King Inc., Robert Ottenhoff, president and CEO of GuideStar, which provides information on nonprofits, said it would be advantageous to have a board that is not dominated by an individual or family. That’s particularly true if the family also personally benefits from the actions of the organization.
“Good governance policy suggests that you have an independent board,” he said. It’s not to say the family can’t be involved, he said, but they shouldn’t dominate the workings of the board.
Supporting Martin King’s concerns about a blurring of lines between the King Center and King Inc., Ottenhoff warned that there should be a “very clear, bright line” that separates administration, salaries and expenses between nonprofit and for-profit entities. “The IRS wants to make sure that when a donor makes a contribution to a nonprofit that the for-profit is not in some way benefiting from the nonprofit’s ability to not pay taxes and that the money is actually going to the nonprofit’s mission,” he said. “There might be some overlap, but a differentiation is usually considered best practice.”
King said he will now spend his time launching a new global organization, the Institute for Social Justice and Human Rights, which will be based in Atlanta, and focusing on Bounce TV, an African-American-oriented television network that he co-founded and helped finance.
Although he characterized the split as a philosophical one, it no doubt causes a strain among the children of the legendary civil rights leader. Over the years, the relationship among the siblings has been rocky, filled with accusations of mismanagement and lawsuits. Bernice and Martin King were considered the closest. So it may come as a surprise to many observers that she apparently voted for the changes that ultimately led to his leaving the King Center.
“We talk from time to time, but most of the conversations are formal, rather than informal,” Martin King said of his siblings. “We still have a deep love for one another. We just have philosophical differences. I am going to always love them. They chose a direction I disagree with. I’d be less than honest if I said I was not concerned or hurt by their actions.”
What’s next for Martin Luther King III?
His work: The former CEO of the King Center says he will spend his time launching a new global organization, the Institute for Social Justice and Human Rights, which will be based in Atlanta. He also works with Bounce TV, an African-American-oriented television network that he co-founded and helped finance.
His family: “We still have a deep love for one another. We just have philosophical differences,” King said.
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