The Shakedown at the King Monument

Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images
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."

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.


In case you're wondering how that speech could be used, the answer is found in the tagline to the commercial, after a shot of King at the Lincoln Memorial in which the March on Washington crowd has been electronically removed: "Before you can inspire, before you can touch, you must first connect. And the company that connects more of the world is Alcatel, a leader in communication networks." 

In 1999 the Library of Congress was set to purchase King's papers for an unprecedented $20 million; King's family demanded that they retain copyright control, and the library had to reject that requirement. When King's nephew Isaac Newton Farris was CEO of the King Center, he demanded payment from a small company that put King and President Obama together on a T-shirt. Farris is now the president of King's old organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.


More than once, the King children have fought among themselves. In July 2008, Martin Luther King III and Bernice King filed a lawsuit against Dexter King, accusing him of improperly taking money from the estate of their late mother and transferring it to the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr. Inc., of which Dexter serves as president. It was settled out of court in October 2009.

Another battle involved a $1.4 million book deal with the Penguin Group for Coretta Scott King's ghostwritten memoir, during which Dexter went to court to compel his siblings to turn over personal papers and photos for the book. Bernice and Martin III resisted, insisting that their mother had decided before she died that she no longer wanted Barbara Reynolds as the ghostwriter.


After Coretta King's death in 2006, an investigation by the Wall Street Journal found that Dexter had received pay from the King Center in Atlanta averaging $165,000 a year. The newspaper also found that the center had paid a total of $4.2 million to Intellectual Properties. At this point, the center itself was in complete disarray, needing $11 million in repairs, according to the Park Service. It had also discontinued nonviolent-social-change training and was subject to intense criticism from former King colleagues.

None of this diminishes the importance of the King Memorial, but this writer, anyway, wishes that even at risk of delay, the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation had called young Dexter out on his shameless profiteering.


As Atlanta columnist Cynthia Tucker put it back in 2001 when Dexter King sold to Cingular Wireless the right to use Dr. King's words along with those of Kermit the Frog, "Dexter King, second son of the famous civil rights crusader, had a dream. He wanted to turn his father's legacy into a cash machine like Elvis Presley's. So six years ago, he made two visits to Graceland, Presley's Memphis home, to find out how to turn his dream into dollars. And now the younger King's vision is finally taking shape."

And his vision, Dexter told Slate Magazine's David Plotz, is not to accumulate great wealth but to protect and extend his father's legacy using today's tools: "His media was marching. We are substituting the means of today — CD-ROMs, the Internet, books — to get the message out … Our intentions were not for profit. The profit happens to be a byproduct of doing the right thing."


That still doesn't explain why the foundation that built the monument on the Mall had to pay nearly $800,000 to "do the right thing."

Charles E. Cobb Jr. was a field organizer in the 1960s for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.