This article originally appeared in our September 1980 issue.
"On Auburn Avenue, we expect to restore his birthplace and continue the life of Ebenezer Baptist Church, his spiritual home. Together with these, in a memorial park, we plan to locate his final place of entombment and build as well a living, open Freedom Hall which will tell for many generations the story of the movement which he led."
-Coretta Scott King
January 15, 1969
Since Mrs. King uttered that statement over 11 years ago, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Social Change has had many vocal critics, some in Atlanta, others nationwide.
Boyd Lewis, a reporter for Radio Station WABE in Atlanta, has been among the most critical and caustic. In his probing investigative reports, also carried on the national public radio network, Lewis questioned what happened to $5 million in grants which have come to the Center during the past 11 years; why it took ten years for the organization to file an annual fiscal report with the State of Georgia; the function of the Fund for Peace, Nonviolence and Brotherhood, which received a total of $362,191 from the Center from 1971 to 1977; and the fact that the chairman of the board of trustees didn't know of the existence of this fund.
Lewis also asked why Jimmy Carter was given the Martin Luther King, Jr. Peace Prize in 1979, implying it was a politically motivated gesture to help the Center receive large sums of money from a variety of Federal agencies. Why did the Southern Christian Leadership Conference which was founded by Dr. King, picket the 1979 MLK birthday week activities?
What, exactly, is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Social Change?
Mrs. King granted ATLANTA Magazine a four-hour interview when the initial research into these questions began, and other Center staff members were equally helpful. Board members were interviewed, along with former directors in an attempt to unravel some of the mystery often associated with what the Center is doing.
To investigate allegations of financial mismanagement and possible violations of the regulations for solicitation and collection of funds for charitable purposes, interviews were held with officials in the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office and with officials in the Office of the Attorney General. Atlanta Constitution reporters who had written a series of articles on the Center in 1979 were questioned, and the publisher of a black newspaper in Atlanta — a critic of what the Center has and has not been doing — was interviewed.
In short, opinions and facts were gathered from friend and foe alike in an effort to gather sufficient information to objectively analyze the organization and its success or failure in reaching its stated goals and objectives.
One conclusion comes across loud and clear after interviewing scores of individuals: there is a great deal of general confusion about the real purpose of the Center.
John Cox, an active board member, chairperson of the steering committee for King Week 1980, and a Delta Air Lines executive, says the Center is "a Mecca for black people. It symbolizes a great person, a great man.'' He further states that "it is a national organization," and that it has "a national and an international mission." It is not a local center, he says. "It is manifested in Atlanta and in other parts of the country.
Some, however, feel good works should begin at home.
C. A. Scott, owner and publisher of The Atlanta Voice, believes the King Center should be doing more in Atlanta to help the elderly and the needy in emergency situations. He also believes the mission of the Center should be primarily to "carry out the basic non-violent philosophy of Dr. King." Mr. Scott, an active Republican, also says Mrs. King is too partisan to the Democratic Party and President Carter. (Mrs. King, Dr. Martin Luther King, Sr., and most of the King family have publicly endorsed Carter for President in the 1980 election.)
Mrs. King considers her personal work and efforts as being vital parts of the contribution the King Center is making, and it is difficult to separate the activities of the Center from her activities. From 1971 to 1977, $362,191 was taken from the treasury of the Center and "donated" to the MLK Fund for Peace and Non-Violence. The address for this Fund was Mrs. King's home, and there is no public accounting for how these funds were spent. Official King Center records indicate Mrs. King received a salary of only one dollar per year from 1968 through 1978. Her annual stipend as of October, 1979, is $12,000 per year.
Mrs. Christine Farris, treasurer of the Center and sister of the slain Nobel Prize winner, says the Fund was used to pay for the Center's non-profit business affairs. (The Fund has since been succeeded by the President's Program.)
In 1978 Mrs. King spent $80,000 to attend conferences and do whatever she felt was necessary to accomplish the goals of the Center. Nonviolent Change, an occasional newsletter put out by the Center, noted in its Winter, 1979, edition that the President's Program "includes Mrs. King's work as she travels across the country speaking out on social change issues as Chief Executive of the King Center." (In 1979 her work also took her to Europe and Asia.)
Lloyd Davis, the new Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the Center, agrees with Mrs. King that her efforts have been crucial in helping the organization move toward meeting its goals and objectives. He says the nation would not now have the Humphrey-Hawkins full-employment bill had it not been for the King Center and the personal efforts of Mrs. King and other officers in helping persuade key people in Washington to support the bill. Davis also says we would not have other pieces of social-oriented legislation without the efforts which have been put forth through the Center's President's Program. He cites the White House Conference on Families (on which Mrs. King was the deputy chairperson) and support of the Equal Rights Amendment and causes of the labor movement as examples of important and meaningful activities of the King Center and Mrs. King.
Some argue Mrs. King could have participated in all of these activities as an individual even if there were no such entity as the MLK Center for Social Change. Her stature as the widow of Dr. King might easily qualify her to sit on numerous boards and commissions. Supporters contend her position as President of an organization dedicated to social change gives her the opportunity to establish her own identity and reputation as an effective leader and organizer, fighting for issues and causes she believes are just and right.
An Atlanta Constitution series on the King Center, published October 17 and 18, 1979, by Carole Ashkinaze, Seth Kantor, Jim Stewart and Tina McElroy, delineated the Center's ability to raise millions of dollars during the past 11 years for its many projects and activities. Steve Klein, who is in charge of the Center's pubic relations, says he did not consider the series an objective evaluation of the entire organization, although he did admit the King Center generally got better coverage from the Constitution and the Atlanta Journal than from most newspapers.
In an effort to investigate allegations that the organization might be raising funds for one purpose and using them for another, ATLANTA Magazine examined certain reports which have been recorded with the Secretary of State's Office. According to the state law which regulates professional fund raisers, every charitable organization which has received contributions during the preceding calendar year "shall file a written report with the department [Department of State] on or before March 31st of each year . . . " The Center for Social Change, which began receiving funds in 1971, did not file until 1979, after WABE's Boyd Lewis discovered the Center had never filed a financial report in Georgia.
A careful review of the reports filed since 1979 by this reporter and Boyd Lewis found no evidence of a misappropriation of funds. Officials and board members state their lawyers had not known they had to file a report in Georgia.
But what have they been doing with all that money?
Next Page: A center out of touch with its community