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King's Family Builds Its Own Legacy Of Legal Battles

Bernice King is in a protracted legal battle with her brothers over control of their father's bible and Nobel Peace Prize.
John Bazemore
Bernice King is in a protracted legal battle with her brothers over control of their father's bible and Nobel Peace Prize.

At the end of Selma, the new movie about a pivotal campaign in the Civil Rights Movement, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (played by David Oyelowo) rises to address a crowd in front of a courthouse.

It's a recreation of the moment in which King gave one of his most well-known speeches: "How Long? Not Long." You know the one: "The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

But as the scene goes on, none of the actual language from that speech shows up.

"The intellectual property wasn't available to us," Ava Duvernay, the film's director, told NPR's Michelle Norris last month. So Duvernay had the less-than-enviable task of writing speeches for the movies from scratch, because King's speeches — as well as his papers, personal items and likeness — are tightly controlled by his surviving children, Martin, Dexter and Bernice King.

If King was a polarizing figure in his life, in death he has become increasingly central to the story America tells itself about itself. He has a federal holiday and a towering memorial on the National Mall. The builders of that memorial paid his heirs nearly $800,000 to use King's likeness and words. King is an American hero, but King is also a business.

And like a lot of businesses, the fighting between stakeholders can get really, really ugly.

For years, King's children have been feuding bitterly over King's legacy — with outsiders and each other. They've made some widely criticized decisions in their stewardship of their father's estate, like demanding compensation from the filmmakers behind the landmark PBS documentary on the civil rights movement, Eyes on the Prize, for the unauthorized use of King's image.

They famously filed a suit against USA Today for running the "I Have a Dream" speech — and won. Not long after that, though, they licensed the "I Have a Dream" speech to Alcatel, the French telecom company, for use in a television ad. And right now, Bernice King is engaged in an ugly, protracted court fightwith her brothers over ownership of their father's Nobel Prize and personal Bible.

"Nobody has the monopoly on Martin and Coretta Scott King," Bernice King once told the Associated Press. "This is ours, and it should be governed that way."

The King family has gotten a lot of criticism, but many believe their desire to control their father's estate is fair.

"There's nothing wrong with selling a commercial product, even for a saint," Andrew Young, a former adviser to King and diplomat, told 60 Minutes in 2001. "You have a national holiday, but you don't have the right to control his words, his images, his ideas." King's estate, he said, is the rightful inheritance of King's family.

Shirley Franklin, who was the mayor of Atlanta in 2006, said the same after the city closed a multimillion dollar deal with the King family to hold onto his papers. "Dr. King copyrighted his own work," she said. "He expected that it would have value and expected it would be part of the legacy ... Dr. King left the rest of us a tremendous legacy, but he was not a wealthy man."

Seen through that lens, the squabbling may make more sense. Far less notable families have squabbled over the disposition of much less cumbersome inheritances.

The death of a parent can be a calamity for anyone, but King's death was a generation-defining moment. King's children watched as their father increasingly belonged to everyone: a staple of history textbooks, an avatar for any cause deemed righteous, an evermore formless, affirming abstraction.

King's heirs benefit from the expansion of that legacy, and are its legal custodians as well as real, flawed, not-always-noble human beings. It's no wonder the light cast on them can often look so unflattering.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.
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