It must be difficult to be the son or daughter of a famous person. We have all read about the child of a Hollywood star who does drugs, goes to jail, and generally is a sad case. We have also read of children who try to live their own lives out of the public view. And there are also children who work at preserving the parent’s legacy. But it can’t be easy. I’ve been thinking for the last couple of days about the column Adrian Walker wrote in the Boston Globe for MLK Day. It was titled “King had a dream. His children have an army of lawyers.”
But a far less joyous scene is being played out in a courtroom in Atlanta. Not for the first time, King’s three surviving children are on opposing sides of a lawsuit involving his legacy.
At stake is ownership of King’s 1964 Nobel Peace Prize and his Bible, which President Obama used for his second swearing-in. King’s sons, Martin III and Dexter, apparently want to sell the heirlooms; his daughter, Bernice, has sued to stop them. By court order, both items have been stored in a safe deposit box for nearly a year.
If King had a dream, the King children have a piggy bank. They are one litigious group.
Aside from having previously sued one another, they have sued their father’s closest friends, too. Both former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young and actor/activist Harry Belafonte have been the target of lawsuits about King’s property. Belafonte sued them back in a dispute about ownership of one of King’s most famous speeches, one in which he came out in opposition to the Vietnam War. The parties reached an undisclosed settlement last year.
I hate to mention it to the King children, but sometimes a person is bigger than just being a family member. He – or she – actually belongs to all of us. Most of us would love to be able to go to Atlanta and see the Nobel Prize metal and the family Bible. When I was there a few years back, we visited Ebenezer Baptist Church, the family home, and the pool with the tomb containing Martin and Coretta King at the King Center. It was a very moving experience. To see the various artifacts would have added a great deal.
The family feuds about money have not tarnished King’s legacy, but they have wasted opportunities to enhance it. At the end of the Selma march, King stood in front of the Alabama capital and gave one of the most deeply moving speeches of his career. But you won’t hear it in “Selma” — it’s paraphrased, painfully — because the filmmakers couldn’t get permission to use it.
There are a lot of stories like that. The Kings sued CNN over airing the “I Have A Dream” speech, essentially taking the video of it out of circulation.
King’s greatest moments are increasingly available only in truncated form. That is not the way to honor his memory.
While it is not clear that the brothers would sell the artifacts should they prevail in court, that is the most likely possibility. Nobel Peace prizes should not be auctioned off.
Walker ends his piece
King’s career offers so much to celebrate. Like few Americans before or since, he challenged us to live up to our best and truest selves. Though unfinished, the results of the heroic campaign he led can be seen all around us. As much as anything, he stood for the collective good over the glorification of one individual. He certainly wasn’t about money.
Tragically, that lesson never quite made it to his successors.
King taught us about nonviolence, but it seems that his children have yet to learn that violence does not have to be physical.
Photograph: King Center website http://thekingcenter.org/plan-your-visit