Boston has a special connection to the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose 86th birthday we commemorate Monday.
It was here that he gave some of his first sermons, became a scholar, fell in love, and had his first prolonged exposure to America outside the Deep South. His papers are stored here, at his PhD alma mater, Boston University. A plaque commemorates his old apartment building on Massachusetts Avenue.
These should be glorious days for celebrating King. One of his greatest moments — the heroic march from Selma to Montgomery, culminating in landmark voting rights legislation — is retold in the current hit movie, “Selma.”
But a far less joyous scene is being played out in a courtroom in Atlanta. Not for the first time, King’s three surviving children are on opposing sides of a lawsuit involving his legacy.
At stake is ownership of King’s 1964 Nobel Peace Prize and his Bible, which President Obama used for his second swearing-in. King’s sons, Martin III and Dexter, apparently want to sell the heirlooms; his daughter, Bernice, has sued to stop them. By court order, both items have been stored in a safe deposit box for nearly a year.
If King had a dream, the King children have a piggy bank. They are one litigious group.
Aside from having previously sued one another, they have sued their father’s closest friends, too. Both former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young and actor/activist Harry Belafonte have been the target of lawsuits about King’s property. Belafonte sued them back in a dispute about ownership of one of King’s most famous speeches, one in which he came out in opposition to the Vietnam War. The parties reached an undisclosed settlement last year.
King didn’t die with a particularly large estate, but his legacy has turned out to be worth a fortune. A collection of his papers was sold to Morehouse College, his undergraduate alma mater, for $32 million in 2006. By some estimates, his Nobel could be worth as much as $20 million. Heaven knows what his Bible would fetch at an auction.
The Kings are careful to couch their naked greed in inoffensive terms. After an inconclusive court hearing last week, Dexter King said he did not even know if the items would be sold, were his side to prevail. Noting that the Nobel Prize has never been displayed publicly, he said he and his brother want the public to finally have access to it.
That sounds nice. But when he was asked whether they plan to sell the items, he squirmed. “I can't say at this time,” he told the Atlanta Voice. Not exactly a firm “no,” is it?
The family feuds about money have not tarnished King’s legacy, but they have wasted opportunities to enhance it. At the end of the Selma march, King stood in front of the Alabama capital and gave one of the most deeply moving speeches of his career. But you won’t hear it in “Selma” — it’s paraphrased, painfully — because the filmmakers couldn’t get permission to use it.
There are a lot of stories like that. The Kings sued CNN over airing the “I Have A Dream” speech, essentially taking the video of it out of circulation.
King’s greatest moments are increasingly available only in truncated form. That is not the way to honor his memory.
King’s career offers so much to celebrate. Like few Americans before or since, he challenged us to live up to our best and truest selves. Though unfinished, the results of the heroic campaign he led can be seen all around us. As much as anything, he stood for the collective good over the glorification of one individual. He certainly wasn’t about money.
Tragically, that lesson never quite made it to his successors.