By Joseph Williams and Roland S. Martin
TV One, Washington Watch
They spent six years raising more than $100 million, one cocktail fundraiser, and souvenir mug and lapel pin at a time.
And on October 16, 2011, the idea to build a monument in honor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., an idea that began 28 years earlier at the kitchen table of a member of his fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., came to fruition.
Thousands of people of different races and backgrounds watched as President Barack Obama, two of King’s children, and countless other entertainers and veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, dedicated a bold statue to civil rights icon.
Less than two years later, however, the organizing force behind the national monument – the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Foundation – is no more after the surviving children of Martin and Coretta Scott King refused to grant a license for the group to continue to use the name “Martin Luther King Jr.”
The website that served as the centerpiece of the foundation’s fundraising and informational efforts – www.mlkmemorial.org - no longer exists. What used to be a vibrant site that served as the centerpiece for online donations and information related to the memorial has vanished after the King children, through their attorneys, demanded it be turned over to them.
King’s surviving children – Dexter, Bernice and MLK III – control the copyrights to their father’s images and words through a for-profit entity, King, Inc., which was set up after his death to handle all affairs of his estate.
There have been a number of contentious moments between the MLK foundation and King, Inc., over the last few years. At one point as the memorial was ready to be dedicated, King, Inc. had all of Dr. King’s books removed from the bookstore on the site of the memorial. The King children wanted to control the bookstore and reap all profits from the selling of merchandise.
All of this despite the foundation paying MLK children through King, Inc., $2.7 million to use the likeness of King and his quotes on the memorial on the National Mall.
“We are trying to keep the memorial relevant,” said Harry E. Johnson Sr., a Houston lawyer and president of The Memorial Foundation, the foundation’s new name (The site is www.thememorialfoundation.org and bears the slogan, “Builders of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial).
“We had planned a hundred events around the memorial” and King’s famous name – including year-long classes and a seminar on nonviolent protest featuring the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, who was King’s inspiration, Johnson said.
Clarence Jones, who served as a personal advisor and attorney for Dr. King, called the refusal to grant a new license by King, Inc., to the foundation “obscene.”
“They have done something unique in the history of this country in getting corporate America, private America to fund a memorial to honor the greatest hero of the 20th century,” said Jones, a scholar-in-residence at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Institute at Stanford University.
“They did this in a tribute to his legacy as an Alpha member…it’s not about protecting the legacy or encouraging discussions of King. It’s not about that. It’s about unexplained, selfish interests, which I believe Martin King would be appalled.”
Civil rights historians who have studied King and his family say the move follows a familiar pattern, one in which King’s children tightly control his image – and use a heavy hand to protect it.
That pattern could be at the center of plans to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
The historic August 28,1963, event has left an indelible imprint on the history of America when 250,000 people gathered before the Lincoln Monument to present a series of demands to the federal government. The march has long been credited with setting the stage for the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
But it has also gone down in history due to the stunning speech of Dr. King. Today it is known as the “I Have A Dream” speech, even though that wasn’t the initial name, and the dream portion of it was never in the written text.
The march was convened by the top civil rights organizations and organized labor, including Congress of Racial Equality, the National Urban League, NAACP, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It was organized by A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin.
The 50th anniversary march was supposed to commemorate that historic day, but the King children have different plans. For them, that day is more about King’s speech rather than the march. In fact, the King Center, the non-profit entity set up to continue his works, is promoting August 28 as the 50th anniversary of the speech first, and the march second, based on a logo they are using on various materials.
Since late last year, leaders of the civil rights organizations who organized the original march, as well as the Rev. Al Sharpton, founder of the National Action Network, have been quietly meeting with King family representatives and officials from the National Park Service, which issues permits for demonstrations on the Mall.
The latest meeting took place two weeks ago in Washington, and involved high-level representatives from some of the organizations involved in the event planning. The talks are so sensitive, however, that no one is willing to speak about them publicly or privately.
National Urban League CEO Marc Morial, Wade Henderson of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, and Ben Jealous, NAACP president and CEO, all declined to comment on the record. Sharpton did not return several calls requesting an interview.
“Some things are being sorted out,” said one activist with knowledge of the situation. “In two weeks, we will have a clearer picture… The march is going to happen.”
Eric Tilden, a principal of Intellectual Properties Management, which controls Rev. King’s words and image, agreed to facilitate an interview with Dexter and Bernice King, two of the three shareholders of King, Inc. Their brother, Martin Luther King III, is the other (Yolanda King, the eldest child, died in 2007).
Tilden has not responded to follow-up calls and emails and the King siblings have not been made available for comment. We also called and texted Bernice King and MLK III to no avail.
Civil rights historian David Garrow said if the March on Washington organizers are negotiating with the King children – and putting money on the table – they’re making a mistake.
“As we’ve seen for over 15 years now, the behavior of the family’s financial representatives continue to do active harm to Dr. King’s legacy,” said Garrow, a University of Pittsburgh law professor and author of “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
“King’s legacy has a reduced visibility and less substantive visibility because of the family’s demands,” said Garrow, noting that the family’s estate has raked in millions through the years by managing their father’s “brand” — something King himself would have adamantly rejected.
At the same time, “it’s not as if (King, Inc.) Is using any of this income for charitable good deeds,” Garrow said. “We’ve seen none of that whatsoever. It appears to be simply self-enrichment for a small number of people.”
For years, the King heirs have used the courts to stop any unauthorized use of their father’s likeness and words, suing for custody of documents or a share of any proceeds in merchandise and publications. In the 1990s, the family reached undisclosed settlements with USA Today and CBS over their use of King’s seminal “I Have a Dream” speech without permission; in 1999 a federal appeals court sided with the estate, ruling that the speech was not in the public domain.
Yet the civil rights hero’s words and picture – including images from the March on Washington – have been used in major ad campaigns for products like Apple Computers, Mercedes-Benz and Chevrolet. Neither the corporations nor Intellectual Properties Management have disclosed the amount of money the foundation received for the ads.
In June 2006, Dexter King, then-head of King, Inc., put up the bulk of Dr. King’s personal papers for auction. But then-Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin prevented the sale by orchestrating a $32 million deal to buy them and have the papers preserved in the city of Atlanta. That money went directly to King, Inc.
Lawyers for King, Inc. even tried to demand that the man who helped Dr. King craft the “I Have A Dream” speech, and the one who filed the copyright, pay for using the full speech in his book.
Clarence Jones, who served as a personal advisor, attorney and speech writer for King, says when he wrote his book, “Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech that Transformed a Nation,” he was told by attorneys for King, Inc., that if he wanted to use the full speech in the book, he could for $20,000.
A stunned Jones said, “If it wasn’t for me copyrighting that speech, the King children wouldn’t today own their biggest moneymaker.”
His small publisher was afraid of getting sued by King, Inc., so Jones indemnified them from any costs associated with a lawsuit and dared lawyers for the King children to sue him.
They never did.
The King children angered many civil rights leaders in September 2011 when King, Inc. sued Jackson, Miss., TV anchor Howard Ballou after he broadcasted a story about the papers his mom collected working for King at the SCLC.
The estate wanted possession of documents, photographs and other items that Ballou’s mother, Maude Ballou, said King gave her when they worked together at the Montgomery Improvement Association and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the 1950s.
Attorneys for King, Inc. asserted they owned any and all papers of his mom. But last week, a federal court in Mississippi ruled that Ballou could keep documents and other materials associated with Rev. King. The documents include a sermon; a written statement King made after a landmark Supreme Court ruling on segregation; and a handwritten letter to Ballou’s mother from Rosa Parks.
While the March on Washington commemoration is still in the early planning stages, Carol Johnson, a National Park Service spokeswoman, said the Park Service holds the event permit for Aug. 28 on the National Mall. That’s not uncommon, she said, particularly since the march is months away, organizers haven’t specified their plans or outlined how they intend to cover the millions of dollars in baseline logistical and security costs.
Given the costs, it’s likely that the March on Washington organizers will have to raise significant amounts of money just to put the march on the National Park Service calendar. Throw in additional events, such as seminars and a prayer breakfast, and the financial hurdles they must clear get even steeper.
At least one member of the organizing committee, however, isn’t worried.
“The preparations I know about are going just fine,” Clayola Brown, president of the Randolph Institute, told TV One’s Washington Watch. She said organizers have tentatively planned a weeklong series of events, culminating in a rally on the Mall expected to draw hundreds of thousands of people.
So far, she said, there have been about four meetings in Atlanta and elsewhere involving civil rights leaders and various unions. They also met with the National Park Service and members of the King family for additional planning, though she wouldn’t specify the nature of the discussions.
The NAACP’s Jealous wouldn’t talk about the meetings with the King family and rejected any suggestion that the march wouldn’t happen.
“The 50th anniversary of the March for Jobs and Freedom comes in the midst of a moment in which black unemployment remains the highest in recent memory,” he said. “There needs to be a march, and it needs to happen now, or we risk our children becoming truly the first generation of African Americans to be decidedly more worse off than their parents.”
But Garrow cautions Jealous and others from reaching a deal with the King children at any cost without keeping the meaning of the original march in mind.
The organizers “don’t need to deal with [the King heirs] to do a 50th anniversary event, so long as they’re not rebroadcasting a 50th anniversary of the ‘I Have A Dream’ speech,” Garrow said. “Dexter King doesn’t represent anybody, while you’ve got a number of organizations that do represent the African American community. You can honor Dr. King’s legacy without talking to Dexter in the slightest.”
“I think the big question is whether it goes off in a significant way or goes off in an insignificant way,” he added. “Does it really present a policy agenda and focus on issues? Or is it just a commemoration for the sake of commemoration?”
Disclosure: Roland S. Martin is a life member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., and played a role in helping the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Foundation raise money to help build the memorial. He has also emceeded a fundraising dinner for the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, and wrote an endorsement for the book published by Bernice King about her mom, “Desert Rose: The Life and Legacy of Coretta Scott King.”