ATLANTA — Almost since its inception in 1968, and despite its national and global reach, the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change has teetered on the brink of relevancy and survival. Maintenance has been a problem, and local and federal courts are littered with years of lawsuits filed by and against the center.
But perhaps nothing has threatened the future of the center as much as a lawsuit filed last month. If successful, it would not only force major changes in leadership, it would prevent the organization dedicated to furthering King’s legacy from using his name, image or words.
Martin Luther King III and his brother, Dexter King, authorized the suit on behalf of the King Estate, which owns their father’s intellectual property. The target of their dissatisfaction is their younger sister, Bernice King, who runs the King Center.
Reverberations of the dispute threaten to sully a piece of America’s heritage that, for many throughout the world, is the first thing they think of when they think of Atlanta.
“When (the siblings) are fighting, they are wasting opportunities they have to better foster race relations in this country,” said relationship and family expert Laurie Puhn, the author of “Fight Less, Love More.” “They have been born with tremendous access and opportunities. Having a family name is not a burden. It is freedom to pick what their interests are and help others. (Their conflict) is disappointing to the country, and an embarrassment.” The estate, a for-profit entity that owns the rights to King’s intellectual property, generates income for family members by licensing the rights to use it.
The King Center, like any outside entity, must purchase the rights to use King’s words and image. In their suit, the brothers contend that the center is disseminating the items it has licensed too freely, undermining the value of the estate’s copyrights.
To some degree, the conflict may be inevitable, given the two entities’ divergent goals, said Tricia Harris, who has served in key roles with both organizations.
“On the one hand, you have the King Center, which is out to promote the legacy. That is not the mission of the King Estate, which is more along the lines of protecting the legacy,” Harris said.
Making things even messier, the three surviving King children closely control both entities, so family dynamics as well as corporate interests are at play.
In suing the center, the brothers are filing suit against a nonprofit whose board they are members of. (Dexter is CEO of the estate and chairman of the center’s board.) Bernice King is defending herself against a suit brought by a company in which she is a major shareholder.
On Sept. 9, attorneys for the King Center and Bernice King shifted the battle to federal court. They asked a federal district judge to issue an emergency order that would preserve the status quo, allowing the center to continue making use of the copyrighted material it has licensed.
Bernice King is also seeking to bar her brothers – because of conflicts of interest – from attempting to control the center through another organization in which they are all stakeholders. That’s Intellectual Properties Management Inc., which was established in 1994 by the King Estate to manage the King brand.
This is the third public dust-up in five years. In 2008, Bernice King and King III took Dexter King to court over how he was handling the family fortune. In 2012, when Bernice King took over the King Center, it was she and Dexter King who deposed King III, who had been serving as president and CEO.
Alveda King, a cousin and member of the King Center’s board, said the conflict is no different from that experienced by other families. She noted that the brothers were with Bernice King earlier this year to celebrate her 50th birthday. On the Sunday before the anniversary of the March on Washington, Bernice King attended King III’s book signing at the King Memorial in Washington.
“People outside the family will try to create a tension and not allow the process of love and healing to take place,” Alveda King said.
Yet, since the lawsuit was filed Aug. 28, the siblings haven’t seen or spoken to each other.
Calls and emails over the past two weeks from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to the brothers were not returned. William Hill of Rafuse Hill & Hodges, who is representing the estate in the suit, declined to comment, referring all questions to Sandra Butler, the licensing manager for IPM.
She did not return calls or respond to a list of questions provided by the AJC.
The King Center – inside the National Park Service’s King National Historic Site – between his birth home and historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he and his father preached. Just months after her husband’s death in 1968, Coretta Scott King established the center to honor his memory and carry forth his legacy.
The executive leadership and board have always been dominated by family members. The current board includes the three siblings, two other family members and former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young.
In a recent interview with the AJC, Bernice King said that was a problem and that a new executive and governance leadership model might be in order.
“The best thing we can do is try to expand the board of the King Center,” she said.
Dennis Young, a Georgia State University professor at the Andy Young School of Policy Studies, said a dozen members might be a more effective size, allowing the creation of “workable committees” to tackle key issues.
“It would be a good idea for the current board to think about how they would want to expand it,” said Young, who specializes in nonprofit organizations. “With such a famous family and well-known institution, there is even more incentive to get it right.” Matt Podowitz, an Atlanta-based management consultant, said the problems are based as much on family dynamics as they are on board size.
“Boards that are dominated by family, bring in family struggles,” Podowitz said. “It is difficult for family members to interact with each other as a board, without reverting back to how they interact as family members.” When that happens, he said, “it is often necessary to change the roles and find a way to segregate them.” And, unlike most families, the four King children – the eldest, Yolanda, died in 2007 – have been forced to operate in the national spotlight, measured and judged by a public that venerates their father as a kind of mythic hero.
Frances Walfish, a Beverly Hills family psychotherapist and author of “The Self-Aware Parent,” said the Kings’ problems are not unique to famous families, but their fame complicates their struggles.
“It is much harder when the family is high profile, elite and in the media fishbowl,” Walfish said. “Obviously, it is much better when these things are hatched out privately, but that is hard to do when you are Martin Luther King Jr.’s children.”