Last week, during the half-century anniversary of the historic March on Washington—best known as the day Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his masterpiece “Dream” speech—my social media feed was crowded with photos of the three surviving King children at the Lincoln Memorial.
“Well, that’s something,” I commented to my husband. “The only time I’ve seen the three of them together in person was in a courtroom at the Fulton County courthouse.”
While I felt guilty for being cynical during a week devoted to accolades of King’s vision that all people—his children foremost—would be judged fairly, it turns out that cynicism was warranted. According to news reports—including from the Associated Press and Washington Post—on the very day that King’s offspring celebrated the landmark event, lawyers for the two King sons, Martin III and Dexter, filed a suit against their sister, Bernice. The suit reportedly also names their cousin, Alveda King, and Andrew Young, their father’s close colleague whom the King kids grew up calling “Uncle Andy.”
This is hardly the first time the siblings opted to resolve their differences via the legal system. Back in 2008, Bernice and Martin III sued Dexter over his direction of their dad’s estate. Then Dexter sued Bernice about her control over their mom’s papers. The trio hashed it out with the help of a court-appointed mediator. From the outside, at least, it looked as though things were getting patched up. (You can read the backstory on the Kings’s suits and countersuits in the introduction to my interview with Bernice King from the August issue of Atlanta magazine.)
In this latest case, the crux of the dispute is use of their father’s copyrighted words, likeness, and recordings. According to the AP, the brothers protest how Bernice and Young used some MLK materials and also claim that, under Bernice’s management, the King Center on Auburn Avenue is in a state of disrepair. Never mind that Bernice only took over as King Center CEO in 2012—after her brothers, and another cousin, Isaac Newton Farris, each had taken turns helming the Center. It's been in lousy condition for decades, and at least under Bernice King's management someone answers the phone when you call the Center and the water in the reflecting pool around King's crypt is clear.
The family’s zealous protection of King’s copyrights has been criticized for years. Unlike many of my counterparts in media and publishing, I’ve withheld judgment. My reluctance to criticize is doubtless influenced by the time I spent researching a book about their father’s funeral; if you’ve studied dozens of photos of kids staring down at their dad’s casket or watched endless footage of them being crushed between mourners and a mule-drawn wagon in the streets of Atlanta, it’s impossible not to have compassion for the adults those children are today. No one can grasp the pressure of growing up under the shadow of an international figure revered by many as an icon and by some as a saint.
And while it can seem absurd that oratory so historically significant and rhetorically transcendent as “Dream” is barricaded by copyrights, it’s also understandable that the Kings want to protect their parents’ image and words. We might all long to listen to “Dream” in its entirety whenever we please, but who wants to see King quotes splattered on Urban Outfitters hoodies or his face on a cereal box?
But watching this latest dispute unfold is pushing me closer to joining the critics. More than most people, the Kings know the power of symbolism. So they shouldn’t be surprised that this suit, and its timing in particular, will become another symbol of a legacy tarnished.