MLK's Children: They Have a Scheme

A group raises millions to build a memorial to your dad, pays you well and now can't use his name?

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Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

(The Root) -- It must be the incurable cynic in me, or a twisted sense of humor, or some other flaw in my character. But whatever the reason, I just can't get upset by the latest news about the alleged perfidy of Martin Luther King Jr.'s children.

That's the story broken the other day by TV One's Joseph Williams and Roland Martin, that Dr. King's heirs have forced the foundation that raised more than $100 million to build his memorial in Washington to stop using his name. Henceforth, what was known as the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Foundation will be the Memorial Foundation. On its new website, the group pointedly refers to itself as the "builders of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial."

According to a story in USA Today, the whole dispute is much ado about nothing, since the plan had always been for the foundation to stop using King's name after the memorial was completed. But in the past, the King children have expressed concern that contributions to the foundation would cut into donations to the family-controlled King Center. They've sued news organizations and writers for using his words without authorization.

With April 4 being the 45th anniversary of King's murder, it would be easy to work myself up into a lather about this incident. I could rail about how greedy the King kids have become and how outrageous it is for them to go after a group that has already paid them $2.7 million for the honor of using their father's likeness and words on the edifice they built on the National Mall.

Or I could join veterans of the civil rights movement who must be wringing their hands over how this unseemly fuss is also complicating the celebration planned for this summer of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, at which King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech -- which I would quote at length if I weren't worried about Martin III, Bernice and Dexter filing a suit for copyright infringement if I did.

But, hey, I'm not going to indulge in that sort of hating. Instead, I'm going to celebrate. Because this case proves beyond any doubt that the lofty ideals that King outlined in that famous speech are alive and well.

One of the ideals I'm referring to is, of course, that we ought to judge folks by their content of their character, not the color of their skin, or by extension, their parentage. That means, to use a biblical phrase, that we won't visit the sins of the father upon his descendants. We don't, for example, think it's fair to brand someone as a carjacker simply because his grandfather was a horse thief. 

But doesn't that logic also work in the other direction -- that just because someone was a saint, we won't expect his children to be? I mean, doesn't everybody have an equal opportunity to carve out his or her own destiny, as King preached? Why should his offspring be criticized for milking every dollar they can from his famous name just because he was an impecunious human rights activist and not a rich entertainer like Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson? Can't we judge them on their own merits?

The high-minded standards that old fogeys like me used to live by were cooked up in a different era, when black folks were powerless outsiders with limited opportunities for lining their pockets. Back in the 1960s, it was easy for young civil rights workers to keep their hands out of the cookie jar because there weren't any cookies inside it. 

But the calculus changed once we started getting elected to public office and rising in the business world. Once the cookie jar got stuffed with chocolate chip macadamias in the form of lucrative campaign contributions, control over government funds and big royalty payments, not everyone could resist. Our sense of morality needs to catch up to the times.

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