Keeper of the King legacy


ATLANTA -- The resemblance is most pronounced when he is at rest. Leaning back in his leather chair, his head cocked to one side as he listens quietly, Dexter King, the youngest son of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., suddenly becomes the spitting image of his father.

It takes only a gesture and a few words in his rumbling voice, and it is as if a piece of old film has sprung to life, and in color.

The elder King, after all, was 34 -- his son's age -- when he delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech . By then he had already led the Montgomery bus boycott that thrust him into prominence, had already helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and served as its president . The next year, 1964, he would win the Nobel Peace Prize. To grow up in the shadow of such a man, who would have turned 66 yesterday, could be daunting. But if Dexter King feels intimidated, he does not let on.

As he assumes leadership of the social service organization that bears his father's name -- taking control at a tumultuous time when the local news media, community leaders and even former friends of his father are openly critical of his family over a proposed King memorial -- he carries himself with calm assurance.

He says he is his own man, at peace with himself. This all was prompted by an earlier crisis in 1989 when he was appointed president of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change -- the organization his mother founded to carry on his father's legacy -- and resigned four months later.

Now, things are different. On Dec. 30, Dexter King was placed fully in charge of a center whose operations he describes as still chaotic.

Now Mr. King wants to meld his interest in entertainment with his appointed role as keeper of his father's legacy. Whether he ultimately succeeds might depend on what happens in the next few weeks. His vision for the King Center is pinned on the creation of a high-tech interactive museum that would blend computer technology, music, video and holography. The problem is that he wants to build the museum across the street from the King crypt -- on the same property that the U.S. Park Service has already designated as the site of its new $11.8 million visitor center. In the past, the King family and the Park Service have enjoyed a cordial relationship and, until recently, the family seemed to support the Park Service's plan.

But when the Kings came out with their own development proposal, they shocked the city's political leadership and much of the impoverished neighborhood surrounding the site.

But Mr. King maintains that the family was misled by the size and scope of the project. He accuses Park Service officials of wanting to wrest control from the family.

It all is heading for a showdown when both sides meet Saturday.

"What you need to do is find out how to package King in a way that you don't lose the intensity and the reverence that people place on it," he said.

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