The Shakedown at the King Monument

The builders of the memorial paid almost $800,000 to the King family to use his words and pictures.

Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images

The builders of the new Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial at the National Mall had to pay $761,160 for the right to use King's words and images, according to financial documents obtained by the Associated Press. The money went to Intellectual Properties Management Inc. -- a foundation controlled by King's youngest son, Dexter. Another $71,000 was paid out in a "management fee" to the family estate back in 2003.

I hope I'm not the only one who found the opening of this monument soured by what could be considered extortion. In any case, I'm especially ticked off, perhaps because I was an activist and organizer in the Southern freedom movement of the 1960s.

I cannot know this for sure, of course, but I doubt that the family of the murdered John F. Kennedy would charge a fee to a group organizing to place a memorial to him on the National Mall. As historian and King biographer David Garrow told the AP, "I don't think the Jefferson family, the Lincoln family [or] any other group of family ancestors has been paid a licensing fee for a memorial in Washington."

I agree with Garrow that King himself would be "absolutely scandalized" by this kind of pimping of his life and work. When it comes to King's books or published essays, no one would quarrel with the ownership rights of his descendants. But public speeches? His image? His name?

The use of King in a celebratory, nonprofit manner as we see on the Mall? There is perhaps some gray area in the use of his image -- for example, the minting of King "silver" dollars that we see advertised for sale on late-night television. But the memorial hardly falls into this category.

When work on the monument began in 2009, Intellectual Properties Management explained its fee as compensation for contributions to the King Center in Atlanta that might be lost in the fundraising process for the monument: "Many individuals believe all King fundraising initiatives are interrelated and don't donate to the King Center, thinking they have already supported it by donating to the memorial."

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Although the National Park Service said that, to its knowledge, no one had ever before charged such a fee, Harry E. Johnson Sr., president and CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, said the fees were not a burden (out of $120 million raised) and that the foundation has a good relationship with the King family. "We just want to build the memorial," said Johnson, a Houston lawyer. "The memorial we are building will be the people's memorial and will belong to the people of the United States." 

The King children have long tried to make a buck off their martyred dad, demanding money even when his name is invoked in celebration. In the 1990s, the King children sued USA Today and CBS News for broadcasting their father's "I Have a Dream Speech" without payment. They won; a court declared the speech a "performance" and, thus, subject to copyright laws.

I will not denounce the trivializing of King's remarks that this decision reflects, but I must note that the King children have sold the right to use that speech in commercials to Alcatel, a French telecommunications giant.