As King siblings reach agreement, opportunity exists to build a stronger King Center

Few institutions are more important to Atlanta than the King Center.

And few families are more important to our city’s legacy than the family of Martin Luther King Jr.

Unfortunately, for the past several years, the three living children of the late Civil Rights leader have been at odds — saddled with legal and financial disagreements that threatened to destroy their parents’ legacy and the future of the King Center.

But now that three children have laid down their swords, partly due to the involvement of an outside mediator, the opportunity exists for each of them to follow their own paths by working in roles where they excel.

But a danger also exists that the three children will take on challenges where they could fail or give in to their own shortcomings.

Before I continue, I must disclose that I have no objectivity when it comes to the King family. I was fortunate enough to have been a close friend of Yolanda King, the oldest of the four children of Coretta and Martin Luther King Jr, during elementary school. As an 11 year old, I got to spend the night in the King home, go to Ebenezer Baptist Church on Sunday mornings to hear MLK preach and feel as though I was part of the extended family.

The deaths of Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King and Yolanda King were not only huge losses for our country and our city, they also were personal losses.

So when I speak of the King family, I do so with love.

As a close observer of the family — both as a reporter and a friend — I have been disappointed by what has happened to the three living children since their parents and their oldest sibling have passed away.

I also have been extremely disappointed with how the media and commentators have misrepresented the family and what has happened.

For starters, each of the three children have their individual strengths and weaknesses. And it is unfair to lump “the King children” into one group. The all have different personalities and motivations and cannot be painted with the same brush.

It also is too narrow to say that the King legacy rests with just the three children. There are aunts, uncles, cousins and other extended family members and friends who also are vitally important to carrying on the dream.

Let me first introduce the three children.

There is Martin Luther King III, the oldest of the living children. Martin has been vice chairman of the Fulton County Commission; he has been president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; and he was president of the King Center until there was a falling out with his brother, Dexter King. More recently, he has been running his own organization called: “Realizing the Dream.”

Bernice King, the youngest of the four children, has been allied with Martin in most of the disputes against Dexter. She is an ordained minister who has been affiliated with New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. More recently, she has been elected to be the next president of SCLC.

Dexter, and his business partner Phil Jones, have been running King Inc., the entity that owns the intellectual property rights of the King estate. Movies, books, royalties and anything that has the potential to monetize the King legacy has been controlled by Dexter and Phil.

Those who defend Dexter say he and Phil are the ones with the business brains and that the estate would have little money had they not been there to capitalize on the King legacy.

Others say that Dexter has lost sight of his father’s core values of love, peace, economic equality and has been motivated by greed. In short, both of those statements are not mutually exclusive.

Take the $32 million that the King children received when Atlanta leaders were able to buy a priceless collection of MLK’s papers before they went on the auction block. The deal was negotiated by Dexter and Phil. But they were paid handsomely for their work, which became a wedge issue with Martin and Bernice.

Of the $32 million, the family borrowed $4 million from Sotheby’s off the top. After Sotheby’s share, estimated to be nearly $8 million, leaving just a little bit more than $20 million to be divided among the four children (Yolanda passed away after the deal had been done).

Dexter’s share was about $9 million to $10 million. Phil is thought to have received at least $3 million. (There also is some question about whether Dexter received a portion of what Phil made).

The share that Yolanda, Martin and Bernice received may have been as little as $3 million, possibly less than what Phil Jones received. Apparently, during the lawsuits, Dexter was able to show through signed legal documents that he and Phil had the right to their share of the funds. But having the legal right is not the same as being morally right.

Compare the lifestyles. Dexter lives in a home in Malibu on about nine acres overlooking the Pacific Coast estimated to be worth up to $14 million. By comparison, Martin and Bernice live in far more modest subdivisions.

During the past several years, Dexter has had the controlling power of both the King Center and King Inc. He stacked the board with his personal friends and associates, and he did not call a board meeting for years basically freezing out Martin and Bernice.

After a series of suits and countersuits, there is now an agreement in principle. Dexter will continue to run King Inc., the entity with the most potential of making money. Martin will be president and CEO of the King Center (Dexter currently is chairman of the King Center board, but he will give up that role in about 90 days). And if Bernice decides to take the job, she will have her hands full running the SCLC, which also is mired with a divided board.

Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, who is called “Uncle Andy” by the King children, is optimistic that the current delegation of roles will work.

“It’s wonderful,” Young said last week of the latest agreement. “We have crossed most of the hurdles, if not all.”

But it’s not that simple, and questions do remain.

Will Martin, not known for being a strong day-to-day manager, be able to succeed in running the King Center? Will Dexter be able to be more equitable and less motivated by money? Will Bernice be able to head the SCLC, an organization founded by her father? Will the three children be able to lead and not be overly influenced by their hangers on — associates who have been living off the King legacy for years?

It’s not just family harmony that matters. It’s about the future of the King Center. It’s about what it means for Atlanta, the state, the world and the King legacy.

Amazingly, despite the strife among the siblings, the King Center has been fairly capable hands during the past five years thanks to the leadership of Isaac Newton Farris Jr., whose mother is Christine Farris, Martin Luther King Jr.’s sister.

As the King Center’s president and CEO, Farris has had to walk a tightrope through the disputes between his three first cousins and has focused on running the institution. (Farris has said he has the best of all worlds. He has King’s blood in his veins but doesn’t have to live with the weight of having the King name).

One solution would be for Isaac Farris to continue running the day-to-day operations of the King Center, while Martin would continue being the voice of the center— spreading his parents’ message around the world and preserving their legacy.

This is a pivotal time for the King family and the King Center. Once and for all, family discord and past disappointed outcomes can fade away as a new, stronger dream takes hold.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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