Rescuing The King Family


Time for eminent persons group to mediate money battle


It was only two weeks ago that the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice began with tributes from Presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter to political and civic leaders.

And 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 on Aug. 28, 1963.

Like many, I 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 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 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, correspondences, as well as 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 50 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 on the content of their character, which shows the kind of hope he had for his children and all 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 Sept. 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 called “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, DC 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.

King’s own biographer, David Garrow, was shocked that the children would asked to be paid for erecting a 30 foot, 8 inch statue of King on the National Mall which is taller than Thomas Jefferson’s 19-foot statue.

Garrow told the Associated Press that King would be “absolutely scandalized by the profiteering behavior of his children. I don’t think the Jefferson family, the Lincoln family…I don’t think any other group of family ancestors has been paid a licensing fee for a memorial in Washington. One would think any family would be so thrilled to have their forefather celebrated and memorialized in D.C. that it would never dawn on them to ask for a penny.”

American conflictologist C. Paschal Eze said, “the Kingian nonviolence legacy is too profound and pertinent to be undermined by such a bitter family feud.”

The children have long claimed that their father was a private citizen and therefore they are entitled to financial rewards and benefits from his many public roles. That is understandable but private citizens do not have federal holidays named after them and monuments are not built for private citizens on the National Mall.

“I obviously subscribe to Kingian nonviolence, but as Johan Galtung brilliantly expounded, violence is not only physical but also emotional and structural. Since the litigation process is an adversarial zero-sum game, it is usually laden with emotional violence. That’s why mediation by select group of eminent persons respected by all parties is highly desired,” said Eze, a widely traveled conflict transformation expert who founded the Peacecrave Institute.

One wonders whether other Black leaders have tried to mediate the ongoing public saga of the King children.

That is why I recommend a committee of eminent persons who are outside of the traditional civil rights enclave, but are strongly connected to the concept of peace and justice and to the ideas that King fought for, to help the King children settle once and for all their financial conflicts over his legacy.

The following individuals are global forces who are widely respected and above board and can get the King children to look at the larger mission of their father’s unfinished pilgrimage and the role they could have on the movement for social transfor
mation instead of the current litigious movement in court.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, is one of the most preeminent voices for global justice on the world stage and, like King, he also is a Nobel Peace Prize winner. When Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa and created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that caught the world by surprise because of bitter and painful testimonies that came before the commission about South Africa’s racist past, it was Tutu that Mandela tapped to chair the commission. Also King, in his acceptance speech, referenced South Africa’s apartheid reign when he paid tribute to the 1960 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Albert Lutuli, who was president of the African National Congress (ANC), the party that fought apartheid.

Bishop PA Brooks, is a major ecclesiastical figure in the African American religious tradition. As the First Assistant Presiding Bishop of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), the largest African-American Christian denomination of 6.5 million members, Brooks has been a contemporary Christian voice on political and socioeconomic transformation and has trained a generation of African-American ministers. He has prayed over world leaders, including President Clinton, and is a leader whose counsel is sought by major political institutions including serving as guest chaplain of the 102nd Congress. Also significant is that King delivered his prophetic “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech on the eve of his death in Memphis at Mason Temple Church of God in Christ, which COGIC called its powerhouse center.

Oprah Winfrey, the media powerhouse who has become a major force for public good and specifically upholding the legacy of King by reminding her audiences at every chance about the importance of King’s struggles to the present generation. Her compelling crossover appeal today lends itself to King’s own wish about the preference over content of character instead of skin color. Before the arrival of First Lady Michelle Obama, Winfrey was the most powerful African-American woman on the world stage who continues to use her resources to address the crisis of the less fortunate in what King noted when he said “Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.” Time for King’s children to bury the hatchet.

Bankole Thompson is the editor of the Michigan Chronicle and author of the forthcoming book on Detroit titled “Rising From the Ashes: Engaging Detroit’s Future with Courage.” His most recent book “Obama and Christian Loyalty,” deals with the politics of the religious right, Black theology and the president’s faith posture across a myriad of issues with an epilogue by former White House spokesman Robert S. Weiner. He is a political analyst at WDET-101.9FM (Detroit Public Radio) and a member of the weekly “Obama Watch” roundtable on WLIB-1190AM New York. Email him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and visit

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