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CURRY: Dr. King 'Turning In His Grave' Over Family Greed

George E. Curry | 2/12/2014, 3 p.m.
Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy listen to speakers during a Southern Christian Leadership Conference meeting. The embattled civil rights organization is now led by King's daughter Bernice King. (Courtesy photo)

The children of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sue each other – as well as loyal family friends – so often that you need a program to keep up with the court action. Bernice and Martin Luther King, III sued Dexter because he failed to open the books of their father’s estate. Dexter, hoping to sign a $1.4 million book contract, sued Bernice, who administers their mother’s estate, for not sharing their parents’ love letters.

Now, for some inexplicable reason, Martin III has teamed up with Dexter to sue Bernice to compel her to turn over their father’s Bible – the one President Obama used at his second swearing-in – and his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize medal because they have an interested buyer. But Bernice refuses to surrender the items, saying some things are sacred and should not be for sale.

The person who was perhaps least surprised by the latest family shenanigans is Harry E. Johnson, Sr., president of what was once called the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation.

In a series of tape-recorded interviews with me, beginning April 21, 2011, Johnson, who raised more than $100 million to erect the Memorial, recounted his disappointing experience with the King family.

His first disappointment came when the family-controlled entity responsible for preserving Dr. King’s image charged the foundation a licensing fee of $2.8 million. But even that wasn’t enough and the King family refused to extend the licensing agreement. Consequently the name of the foundation was changed last year to The Memorial Foundation.

“When we originally had an agreement with them, it was a licensing agreement to use the name and images of Dr. King [in fundraising material],” Johnson stated. “They said the licensing agreement has expired. Fine. I’m saying, ‘Give me another licensing agreement.’ They’re saying, ‘No we don’t want you to use the name.’ It really boils down to this: They want me out of the way because they are saying they need to raise $170 million for the King Center and I’m in the way. Philanthropy in this country is a $320 billion a year industry. How am I in the way to raise whatever they need to raise?”

Johnson questions whether Dr. King is a private figure anymore.

“They keep throwing out the fact that Dr. King was a private citizen – that’s why his image is protected. And I told Roland [Martin] to ask Jeffrey Toobin, the lawyer on CNN: ‘At what point does one stop becoming a private citizen? Is that when we named a holiday after him? Or is it when we put a memorial on the Mall of him next to the other icons of this country?’ (Martin confirmed that Johnson made that request of him, but he never asked Toobin to reply.)

“This is the killer part: If he’s a private person, then the King estate and family can say, ‘If you take a picture of the Memorial and you sell it as a postcard, you owe them a licensing fee. I don’t know if a member of the Congressional Black Caucus would be willing to pick that up as an issue, but I am certain a White Republican would say, ‘Get the hell out of here.’”