(The Root) — Talk about ugly timing. Word comes from Atlanta that on the very day on which thousands gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the sons of Martin Luther King Jr. were dragging their sister into court, accusing her of planning to keep using their father’s memorabilia even though she is no longer licensed to do so.
According to Courthouse News Service, Martin Luther King III and Dexter King, representing their father’s estate, say that the Martin Luther King Jr. Center, whose CEO is Bernice King, has been careless with their father’s intellectual property. That includes not only his name, image, recordings and writings but also “the remains and coffin contained within the crypt of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” That’s right, they’re literally fighting over a dead body.
The lawsuit alleges that an audit conducted last spring “revealed that the current manner of care and storage of the physical property by defendant is unacceptable.” It claims the items are “susceptible to damage by fire, water, mold, and mildew, as well as theft.”
The King brothers want the King Center to put their sister on administrative leave and get their approval for how all these items are maintained and displayed. They also want the Rev. Andrew Young, who was their mother’s closest friend and adviser among their father’s aides, and their father’s niece Alveda King to be kicked off the center’s board of directors.
Thus the legal wrangling among the heirs of the slain civil rights icon moved into a nasty new phase even as the three of them sat together onstage at last week’s ceremony. Just five years ago, it was Martin III and Bernice suing Dexter for allegedly improperly using funds from their father’s estate. That squabble was settled out of court in 2009. Meanwhile, they’ve cut lucrative licensing deals, including one with the foundation that raised the funds to build the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, and aggressively gone after alleged infringers of their father’s copyrighted materials.
Well, I have a dream about all this. Suppose that rather than suing one another on the anniversary of their father’s most memorable public address, the King children had decided to release that famous speech from copyright protection and allow it to go into the public domain? They could have retained rights to all the rest of his works, collecting fees to add to the $50 million or so they have already garnered from book deals, the sale of some of his papers and other arrangements. What a magnificent gift to the world that would have been! Instead, we got a new bout of unseemly wrangling from the movement’s most dysfunctional family.
Jack White, a former columnist for Time magazine, is a freelance writer in Richmond, Va., and a contributing editor at The Root.