King day

Posted: Jan 19, 2006 12:05 AM

This past week, America celebrated the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

 As usual, the most prominent of official celebrations was at the church in Atlanta where Dr. King was pastor.

 On the surface, this distinguished gathering of political dignitaries and civil rights leaders was a celebratory promotion of humanity and goodwill. Beneath the still waters, however, it was anything but.

 For context in this examination of "King Day," let's first note that recent surveys conflict on whether Americans believe their country has made significant progress in race relations since the tumultuous 1960s.

 Either way, few will deny that the nature of the race debate has evolved to new conflicts. There remains at least a difference in how most white and most black Americans feel about political philosophy and party identification.

 These split opinions don't end with whites and blacks. They extend into the King family itself; and this leads us to the story of the 2006 MLK memorial service in Atlanta.

 Dr. King's widow, Coretta Scott King, is recovering from a stroke and was unable to attend.

 Even the barest acquaintance of Mrs. King can attest that she is a strong and assertive person, sometimes to the point of haughtiness. To her credit, it was partly this iron constitution that helped her to successfully raise her children without a father; to successfully lobby Congress for a King national holiday; and to be instrumental in the creation of the Martin Luther King Center For Non-Violent Change in Atlanta.

 Sadly, it's the King Center that is the crux of the present-day battle. This fight isn't among political, social or racial groups, but among the Kings themselves.

 On one side is Dr. King's son Dexter. He is the apparent head of the King Center, which is located in Atlanta's Martin Luther King Jr. National Site, where his father is buried and which now belongs to the National Parks Service.

 Dexter wants to sell the center, as do many family members.

 On the other side is Dexter's brother Martin III, and another set of family members. They oppose a sale, believing that the many efforts to advance Dr. King's philosophy are most effectively promoted by its belonging to MLK's family instead of to the U.S. government.

 You might be speculating on which side I'm going to take. Is it wrong for the U.S. government to buy treasures like the King Center, or is it wise? After all, the center's appearance has deteriorated to the point that algae and other filth often cover the reflecting pool that dominates the area near Dr. King's crypt.

 There are good arguments on both sides. But as is often the case, my column this week is concentrated on informing readers about the deeper implications of a difference of opinion -- in this case not among the public at large, but within a family.

 American conservatives may be startled to learn that for years the King family has been the butt of many editorial attacks from its hometown Atlanta newspaper. This is doubly odd when you consider that this newspaper is known far and wide as one that overwhelmingly reflects the kinds of left-leaning, Democratic-Party philosophical and political positions held by Dr. King. Plus, the newspaper played a historic role in supporting King and his mission while he was alive.

 As for liberals, many are often appalled that the King family has -- heaven forbid -- asked for money when their father's image has been used for commercial purposes. The Kings have argued that MLK's writings and speeches are intellectual property that belongs to the family -- as would any property of deceased spouses or parents to their heirs.

 Rather than take sides over the matter of the King Center, I'll instead point out what is a more important story that springs from the current family disagreement.

 To the credit of Dr. King, and maybe even more to Mrs. King, all of their children withstood the titanic pressures of growing up during their father's grand and dangerous career, and became productive citizens.

 While many have claimed that they have misused the center for their own financial benefit, the King siblings are, at minimum, no worse than other children of legends -- including some former presidents -- whose fathers' libraries and offices cost the taxpayers money, and who used government services to make their lives easier.

 I admire most about the King children that they have managed to avoid maligning one another in public. This hasn't always been easy. Some of their spats have led to explanatory press conferences, and, this year, to Martin III and other family members being left off the King Day program, and not even appearing on the dais at church.

 Is this a power struggle? Yes. Is this about money? In large measure, yes. Is this situation as common as families themselves? You bet.

 I'm partly glad to see Dr. King's children having a vigorous "corporate war" over their stewardship of his legacy. Besides demonstrating that they, too, are human, it more importantly shows that they also participate in the constant, but necessary tug-of-war between our systems of private enterprise and government.

 Personally, I have always applauded their continuing efforts to claim ownership of their father's intellectual property, and their attempts to sell or license it. That's America.

 Most importantly, the King family has acted unlike many self-declared spokespersons for the civil rights movement by declining to spew words and or commit deeds of hatred or bigotry.

 They have also differed from many celebrities or their families by not ruining theirs or others' lives with destructive personal behavior or lawbreaking.

 Race relations in America remain a good distance from where they should be. But King Day -- painful as it can be for MLK's family -- demonstrates by their travails that more and more Americans share common aspirations and conflicts. That's checkered progress, but progress that is real, and not just rhetorical. It makes America stronger.