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King Center's future clouded


As civil rights leaders and politicians heralded the life and accomplishments of Coretta Scott King yesterday, one of her more prominent brick-and-mortar legacies was suspended in a state of controversy and disrepair.

The King Center in Atlanta, founded by Mrs. King in 1968 to further the struggle and the ideals of her murdered husband, is more than $11 million behind on maintenance, including leaks where some of Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic papers are stored. Rather than promoting Dr. King's message, its most conspicuous public role in recent years has been to serve as the arena in which King family members battle for control of - and profit from - their family history.

Two of King's children have proposed selling the center to the National Park Service, which manages the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church and the King family home nearby. Two other children, including Martin Luther King III, are trying to block the sale. Meanwhile, conditions at the center, which is built around Dr. King's tomb and a reflecting pool, continue to decline, and many observers say the center's lofty mission of promulgating King's vision of peace and justice is an ever-fading memory.

"I know that she wanted the King Center to be her legacy, and I'm sad to say that's very much in doubt at the moment," said Digby Diehl, a California writer who was working with Mrs. King on her memoirs. "All of the social programs and activities of the center ceased years ago. What's going to happen now to it - it's a football. I'm very sad for her that she had to die watching that go on."

Mrs. King founded the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change shortly after her husband's death, and helped to raise $8 million to establish its current location in 1981, in Atlanta's Sweet Auburn neighborhood. Part of a 23-acre historic site - among the most-visited tourist attractions in the South - it was originally envisioned as a focal point for community outreach, educational programs and social research modeled after Dr. King's life.

"Many obstacles remain before his dream can be fulfilled, including high rates of child poverty, AIDS, the death penalty, domestic, community and international violence, declining educational opportunities and many forms of racism, bigotry and discrimination," Mrs. King wrote in an undated message on the center's Web site. "Clearly, the philosophy and methods of Kingian Nonviolence remain our best hope for addressing these crises."

As leader of the center for more than 25 years, Mrs. King made it a repository for her husband's archives and other civil rights documents, and used it as headquarters for her drive to establish a federal holiday in his name.

Much has changed since she stepped down in 1994 and ceded control to her son Dexter, a would-be actor who reportedly visited Graceland for inspiration in managing the center. Saying he feared his father's message was being corrupted, Dexter King seized tighter control. He fought government efforts to build a visitor's center nearby. With Mrs. King's backing, he spurned the King holiday movement as a competitor to fundraising and continued enforcing the family's copyright of King's "I have a dream" speech. The family engineered a multimillion-dollar deal with Time Warner in 1997 to market recordings of Dr. King and soon was licensing his image for advertisements.

The center's civil rights work seemed to suffer. Much of the staff is gone, and community leaders are at a loss to name social or educational programs it sponsors. Telephone calls and e-mail messages to the center were not returned yesterday.

"The King Center has been ruined by the King family," Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial page editor Cynthia Tucker wrote last year, after her newspaper published details of a National Park Service study showing the center had been neglected and required $11.6 million in repairs.

Giriraj Rao, founder and executive director of the Gandhi Foundation of USA, recalled Mrs. King's enthusiasm in the 1980s, when she helped establish a Gandhi room at the center and sponsored an annual celebration of the Indian leader's birthday at the center. Today the celebration is held elsewhere, shut out by other members of Dr. King's family.

"Mrs. King has made so many positive contributions to our society, and the King Center might have been one of them - and maybe someday it will be one of them," Rao said. "But under those whippersnapper sons of hers, it is no longer the institution that it was intended to be."

Said Diehl: "The children have ended up being a great deal of difficulty to the aims she had."

Sun reporter Stephen Kiehl contributed to this story.

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