In his "I Have a Dream Speech" delivered at the 1963 March on Washington, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said he dreamed of the day his children would be judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their character. If Dr. King had known how Martin III, Dexter and Bernice would later fight over money generated by commercially exploiting his name, he might have omitted any reference to their character. When it comes to money, King's remaining children have no character.
The latest of many examples is their profiting from the construction of the Washington, D.C. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial. They – and all Americans – should be grateful that Harry E. Johnson Sr. and Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity had the vision and unflagging commitment to believe they could erect a memorial to Dr. King on the National Mall. Last year, the 30-foot, 8-inch statue of King was unveiled, dwarfing the 19-foot statue of Thomas Jefferson and the Abraham Lincoln memorial, which is 19 feet, 6 inches.
Instead of being satisfied with this impressive memorial to their father – the first monument to an African American on the Mall – the King children saw dollar signs. They have collected more than $3 million in licensing fees from the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation. The fees were charged in exchange for allowing the foundation to use King's words and likeness in fundraising appeals and as part of the memorial complex itself.
Harry Johnson has raised $119 million of the $120 million needed to build the memorial. But I doubt that any donor gave money to the project with the expectation that the King children would be able to line their pockets with their contribution.
David Garrow, the Pulitzer Prize-winning King biographer, told the Associated Press that Dr. King would have been "absolutely scandalized by the profiteering behavior of his children."
"I don't think the Jefferson family, the Lincoln family...I don't think any other group of family ancestors has been paid a licensing fee for a memorial in Washington," said Garrow. "One would think any family would be so thrilled to have their forefather celebrated and memorialized in D.C. that it would never dawn on them to ask for a penny."
The King family is not looking for pennies or dollars. They are looking for millions. They are already making millions from King's "I Have a Dream Speech." King was a very public man, giving a public speech at the Lincoln Memorial, yet the King children claim that he was a private citizen and therefore they are entitled to profit from his public pronouncements. They successfully sued CBS to prevent the network from airing the "I Have a Dream Speech" – without paying them.
But would they win such a suit today? Fortunately for them, people are willing to give them a pass because they are Dr. King's dysfunctional children, not because of anything they have done. Private citizens don't have federal holidays named in their honor. Monuments aren't erected to them on the National Mall. If Dr. King isn't a public figure, no one is.
Even worse than charging the foundation that erected the King Memorial for use of King's words and images, the King family has now told the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation that their licensing agreement has expired and the family will not extend it. Not even for a sizeable fee. And by the way, the foundation can no longer use King in its name and will have to change that, too.
So what is their angle? You know the money grubbing Kings had to have one. Bernice King, CEO of the King Center in Atlanta, announced a year-long celebration leading to the 50th anniversary of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech.
"We are excited by the four days of activities we have organized to commemorate my father's 'I Have a Dream' speech, in cooperation with the MLK, Jr. National Historic Site and the CDC," she said. "As we launch the year-long countdown to the global observance of the 50th anniversary, the Dreamkeepers Program events will help us address the still relevant challenge of creating a more just society through nonviolent activism."
The King Center – which has been managed by Dexter, Martin III and now Bernice – hopes to raise $170 million from the events.
The famous march was about more than a young preacher from Atlanta delivering a sterling speech that mesmerized the nation. Rather, it was called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was organized by A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
With an official black unemployment rate of 14.4 percent, the emphasis should again be on jobs, not Dr. King's speech.
But a focus on jobs wouldn't put any money into the King coffers. And they've already shown that is one of their major objectives. They had arranged for Sotheby to auction King's papers in 2006. But Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin stepped in and organized a private group that paid $32 million for the papers and donated them to Morehouse College, King's alma mater.
Had he been alive, that's something Dr. King probably would have done. But unlike his children, he wouldn't do it to make a buck.
(George E. Curry is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA) and editorial director of Heart & Soul magazine. He can be reached through www.georgecurry.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.)