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King family's commercialism taints his legacy


WASHINGTON -- I interviewed Coretta Scott King once. It cost $5,000.

In 1985, I approached the King Center in Atlanta seeking both that interview and permission to use old audio of Mrs. King's husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., for a radio documentary. I was told it would cost five grand for the audio rights, and it was made clear that unless that money was paid, there would be no interview.

The ethical constraints of a radio production house are different from those of a news organization; we made the deal. I didn't like it, but I rationalized it by telling myself it was an honor to contribute to the upkeep of a legendary legacy. Amazing what you can make yourself believe.

Coretta Scott King died last week, five months after suffering a heart attack and stroke. She is being widely and lavishly eulogized. "A remarkable and courageous woman," said President Bush. "A staunch freedom fighter," said the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson.

The praise is deserved. There was majesty and grace in Mrs. King, a strength of heart that was displayed nowhere more clearly than at her husband's death. Like Jacqueline Kennedy before her, she mourned inconceivable loss with awesome dignity. Since then, she has been a tireless defender of the dream her husband articulated in August 1963.

She shielded it against racism, pessimism and defeatism. She was less successful against commercialism.

And I don't mean the piddling $5,000. That's a small symptom of the larger malady. I refer you to the King family's 1993 lawsuit against USA Today for reprinting the "I Have a Dream" speech and their subsequent licensing of Dr. King's image and voice for use in television commercials, one of which placed him between Homer Simpson and Kermit the Frog. Then there's the attempt to sell his personal papers for $20 million. Perhaps most galling was the family's demand to be paid to allow construction of a King monument on the Washington Mall.

Yes, it's all legal. But if Dr. King's life taught us nothing else, it taught us that legality and morality are not necessarily the same.

I don't mind the King family making money. But not at all costs, and certainly not at the cost of Dr. King's dignity. Granted, dignity is subjective, and you might draw the line in a different place than I. But I suspect most of us would agree that when a martyr, minister and American hero becomes a TV character hawking cell phones with Homer Simpson, that line has been crossed.

Coretta Scott King founded the King Center, and it has always been controlled by the family. So it seems plain that she approved this money-grubbing, or at least tolerated it. And as a result, her kids have lost their minds.

Particularly the sons, Martin III and Dexter, recently seen publicly feuding over which one will have the six-figure job of running the King Center. Meantime, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution tells us that the facility is in need of more than $11 million in repairs and that $4.2 million of center money has been paid since 2000 to a company Dexter owns. This would be the same Dexter who, in 1995, visited Graceland for tips on how to exploit his father's image as Lisa Marie Presley has exploited hers.

Martin Luther King, it seems necessary to say, was not Elvis Presley. He was a man who stood for something and died for something. That something was not profit. That something belonged to all of us. One wonders if the loss of their mother will shock his children into understanding this.

I'd like to think so. But had you visited the King Center Web site three days after Mrs. King died looking for a tribute, here's what you'd have found: a press release, a quote from Dr. King and a request for money. "Make an online donation in loving memory," it said.

You can do it if you want. Me, I gave at the office.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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