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Jewish World Review Jan. 17, 2002 / 4 Shevat, 5762

John H. Fund

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Dr. King's Greedy Relations: Cashing in on a national hero's legacy -- MARTIN LUTHER KING is a national hero whose legacy belongs to the American people. Sadly, some members of Dr. King's family don't see it that way. In 1996 they sued CBS for trying to show portions of its own footage of the famous 1963 "I have a dream" speech. CBS settled the suit by making a donation to the family's King Center. The family had earlier sued USA Today for reprinting the speech's text and won another out-of-court settlement and an apology.

As we mark a national holiday next week in Dr. King's honor--Tuesday would have been his 73rd birthday--he King family's insistence on so tightly controlling his legacy is troubling to other civil-rights figures. "I think Martin Luther King must be spinning in his grave," former King lieutenant Bill Rutherford told CBS in November. "He attempted his entire life to communicate ideas for free. To communicate, not to sell."

Not only news organizations are the targets of King family greed. The federal government has set aside a four-acre site for a memorial on the Washington Mall. But the effort to build the memorial has stalled because the King family is demanding a licensing fee before it will allow the civil rights leader's image and likeness to be used in any marketing campaign to raise funds for the memorial.

In 1999 the King family persuaded the Senate to pass a bill authorizing the Library of Congress to spend $20 million to obtain a portion of King's 1960s letters, notes and draft speeches. But even at that price, the family would retain the copyright and thus the ability to collect royalties from them. It would also continue to control access to them.

The one-sided deal has stalled in the House. The King documents at issue don't include valuable material from his days leading the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or his early papers, which he donated to Boston University. When Stanford and Emory universities negotiated with the King Center to buy historically significant papers, they weren't really interested in the material earmarked for the Library of Congress. Pulitzer Prize-winning King biographer David Garrow says the collection has little research value unless it's combined with other papers the King family refuses to sell--for now.

The King family will not comment, but a statement released by Dexter King, one of Dr. King's sons, notes that the family's appraisers valued the documents at $30 million and states that "by accepting a payment that is substantially below market value, we are meeting our fiduciary responsibility while making a substantial gift to the nation." In addition to the $20 million, the King family would have gotten a $10 million tax deduction.

Many civil-rights leaders believe the King family has stepped out of bounds in merchandising Dr. King's memory. In 1997, Dexter King negotiated a multimedia deal with Time Warner that the company said could mean as much as $10 million in royalties on books, Web sites and CD-ROMs. While schools may use Dr. King's speeches free, family lawyers hunt down scholars who would use his words. "Eyes on the Prize," the PBS documentary on the civil-rights movement, was delayed until the producers made a $100,000 payment to the King family. Julian Bond, head of the NAACP, says the price of his civil-rights textbook went up by at least $10 a copy because he had to pay to include four King documents in it. "The family hasn't done itself a lot of favors with its insistence that somehow they have to profit," says Mr. Bond.

Hosea Williams, who in 1968 stood with Dr. King on the motel balcony where he was shot, told the Ottawa Citizen that the profiteering has sullied the King message of humility. "It wasn't white racists, nor was it the white government that did it; the people who killed King's dream are those closest to him, and that's the nightmare," he said.

Philip Jones, who helps manage the King estate, says the family is on firm legal ground and that other prominent figures have copyrighted their works for themselves and their estates. Yet one can't help but think that Dr. King himself would look askance at all this. He was a fundamentally modest man, who just before his death spoke of how he should be remembered: "Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize. That isn't important. . . . I want you to be able to say that day . . . that I tried to love and serve humanity."

Indeed. Let us hope that the message of "I have a dream" isn't devalued by some who have appropriated his memory into the more mercenary one of "I have a scheme."

Comment on JWR contributor John H. Fund's column by clicking here.


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03/06/01: Leave well enough alone
02/22/01: Forgetting our heroes
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02/12/01: Clinton owes the country an explanation --- and an appology
02/06/01: How Ronald Reagan changed America
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Dubya's 48% mandate is different than Ford's
12/13/00: Gore would have lost any recount that passed constitutional muster
11/13/00: The People Have Spoken: Will Gore listen?
10/25/00: She's really a Dodger
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09/21/00: Ignore the Polls. The Campaign Isn't Over Yet

©2001, John H. Fund