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Scholars fear King's legacy is fading

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
King at the Civil Rights March on Washington in 1963   

'Commodification' of civil rights leader blamed

April 6, 1999
Web posted at: 12:15 p.m. EDT (1615 GMT)

By John Christensen
CNN Interactive

(CNN) -- Thirty-one years after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., scholars worry that his legacy has begun to fade from public awareness and that commercialization has tarnished his image.

"The longer the Martin Luther King holiday exists, the more passe it becomes," says Emory law school professor David Garrow. "It's the road to Columbus Day."

Garrow, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference," adds, "It's the natural history of things. He has just become less visible in the culture."

Scholars and historians believe that the abundant material King left behind could do much to sustain his legacy. But they say that restrictions and licensing fees imposed by King's family, which controls his estate, limit their ability to do research and create works that might keep his legacy alive.

MLK statue
King National Historic Site in Atlanta   

There are more than 200 archives containing King's letters, speeches and other material, including the King Library and Archives in the Sweet Auburn section of Atlanta where King grew up.

"In the past, if you used a portion of the material, it was OK as long as you cited the source," says Lawrence Mamiya, professor of religion and Africana studies at Vassar College. "But if you have to cite it and pay royalties on it, it becomes problematic.

"The result is the scholarship is not as complete, and the influence of King and his legacy will disappear from the discourse of scholars and books because scholars cannot afford to pay."

'Commodification' of King blamed

"It's unfortunate that the King family has devoted its life and livelihood to the commodification of the image of Martin," says Manning Marable, professor of history and political science at Columbia University. "It's very disturbing for historians and scholars."

King copyrighted some of his material before his death, and in recent years the family has vigorously enforced the estate's intellectual property rights.

It has taken legal action against CBS, USA Today and the producer of the acclaimed documentary "Eyes on the Prize" for using King material without permission. The USA Today and documentary cases were settled out of court, but CBS won its case and the estate's appeal is pending.

MLK stamp
The U.S. Postal Service featured King on a commemorative stamp in 1979   

The family has also fought off attempts to market King's image on everything from refrigerator magnets and plastic statues to switchblade knives.

Taylor Branch, author of two highly acclaimed books about King with a third in progress, says he has been negotiating with the estate on behalf of scholars who want access to King's material and cannot afford high fees to use it.

Branch said the estate now understands the plight of the writer and "things are getting better," but that "if there weren't curtailments in general, we wouldn't be having these negotiations."

A dime for a dollar

Numerous attempts to reach Dexter King, King's youngest son and the head of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change Inc., for comment were unsuccessful.

But in 1997, he told The New York Times that the family's efforts to preserve his father's legacy have been "precarious ... because we had no instructions."

King said the family's position was that no one had the right to profit from his father's work "without at least acknowledging and respecting" the estate's rights.

"It has nothing to do with greed," he said. "It has to do with the principle that if you make a dollar, I should make a dime."

MLK speech
King during his "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, 1963   

Anyone wanting to use more than a brief passage from King's material must submit a request to Intellectual Property Management (IPM), an entity run by Phillip Jones, a friend of Dexter King's since they attended Morehouse College.

Despite several attempts, CNN Interactive was unable to reach Jones, so it is difficult to determine how many requests are approved and what they cost.

However, Tricia Harris, an IPM employee, said that more than half of the requests for copyrighted material such as King's "I Have a Dream" speech are granted without charge to non-profit organizations or educational institutions.

She also said that licensing costs could run into the thousands of dollars for massive advertising campaigns.

Money talk raises eyebrows

It is the mention of large sums of money that makes people uneasy.

"Martin ... cared very little about material wealth or gain," says Columbia's Marable. "He turned over the money ($54,000) from his Nobel (Peace) Prize to the movement. He had very modest needs, and in that sense he devoted himself to the movement."

When King died, his estate was valued at $66,492.22. But in January 1997, the estate signed a deal with Time Warner for a number of books and CD-ROMs that Jones told The New York Times should earn the estate $10 million a year by 2000 and $30 million to $50 million in three to five years. Time Warner is CNN Interactive's parent company.

Ronald Reagan
President Ronald Reagan at the 1983 signing ceremony for King holiday legislation   

The estate has not indicated what it would do with the money.

"That bothers me," says Vassar professor Mamiya. "I can see the children living off his legacy up to a certain point, but when you're talking about $30 (million) or $50 million, that bothers me. That's not where (King's) emphasis was."

"I have no problem with them using speeches and tapes and new technology, but I want to see it done with dignity," says the Rev. Joseph Lowery, one of King's associates and former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Council. "I don't want to see it turned completely into a commercial enterprise."

Scholars losing interest in King

Emory's Garrow questions whether the estate will receive anything close to the amounts Jones mentioned.

"Very few people are actively writing about King any more," he says. "It's weird, but there's very little scholarly interest in him at the moment. We haven't learned anything new in 10 years."

MLK books

Since the book deal was signed, Warner Books has published a collection of King's sermons called "A Knock at Midnight" and "The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr."

"I presume Time Warner took a financial bath on the book of sermons," says Garrow. "It got no attention. And the autobiography thing got pretty unfriendly to hostile reviews, although the final product was better than I expected."

The book was criticized as not really an autobiography, but a collection of King's writings edited by Stanford University history professor Clayborne Carson.

Anita Diggs, a Warner Books publicist, says the books are selling "briskly" but that sales figures aren't in yet because neither has been on the market a year.

"My fear," says Garrow, "is that the overall odor of the family's behavior of the last few years, both with the Ray matter" -- Dexter King met with the man believed to be his father's assassin, James Earl Ray, and absolved him of the murder -- "and with the Time Warner stuff, leaves many people with an implicitly negative aura about King's legacy."

'There's always been commercialization'

Carson disagrees.

"There's always been commercialization of Martin Luther King," Carson says. "I've seen it on velvet, I've seen it on all kinds of mementoes. The only thing that's changed is that Dexter King has been trying to get control over that, and to try to do it in a more systematic way."

Carson adds, "If you're using someone else's property to make a profit, you shouldn't question paying for that privilege."

The estate is negotiating to sell most of its holdings, including King's birth home, to the National Park Service, which operates the Martin Luther King National Historic Site in Atlanta.

Carson believes the King Center wants to turn over its archives to a university that would have the resources and staff to maintain them. Revenue at the center has declined, programs and staff have been cut and the King Library and Archives are the only program still in operation.

A movie revived interest in Malcolm X in the black culture, and Carson says there is "a real need" to revive King's memory in similar fashion.

"I don't think the King legacy has been well-served by the way it has not used the latest in technology," he says. "I think the King legacy has to move into the 21st century, and I think Dexter recognizes that now."

Lessons from Malcolm X

Marable notes that Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X's wife, had an attorney send threatening letters to scholars who were researching her husband and "stifled research on him. She choked off a number of projects that were going to focus on Malcolm X." He is fearful that Coretta Scott King may have done something similar in her husband's case.

"He gave his life for freedom, very much like Gandhi, around whom I can't imagine this kind of commercialization," Marable says. "It's a violation of what the spirit of the man was about. That's the really tragic thing about this."

Black History Month 1999

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