By Maria Saporta
Friday, January 20, 2012
A philosophical divide between Martin Luther King III and his younger siblings over plans to commercialize The King Center, a not-for-profit foundation, led to his decision to resign as president on Jan. 17.
His sister, Bernice King, had been named CEO of the King Center earlier this month — a position that King III had held since the spring of 2010. His brother, Dexter King, continues to serve as chairman of the board during this leadership transition.
In an exclusive telephone interview Jan. 18, King III said that the recent actions at the King Center “that stripped my position of any authority or real responsibility really left me with little choice but to resign.”
King III said that assigning him a “ceremonial position” was due to “fundamental philosophical differences with the board” over a possible convergence of the for-profit King Inc. with the nonprofit King Center.
“The King Center has a distinct and separate mission from King Inc., and it appears that the goal is to bring them back together,” King III said.
In his resignation letter to the King Center’s board of trustees, King III expressed his concerns.
“I disagree with the new direction of the board which makes the Center essentially an extension of King Inc. rather than acknowledge the fundamentally different and at times conflicting motives of a for-profit corporation versus a public foundation,” King III wrote in his letter. “The convergence of the two entities is evidenced by the placement of King Inc. staff in control of the Center, including the interim managing director position.”
King Inc. has been the for-profit entity that had been run by Dexter King. That was the vehicle that had been used to negotiate private agreements on the use of Martin Luther King Jr.’s words and images for commercial purposes — such as a dramatic movie based on the life of the late civil rights leader.
The King Center, founded by MLK’s widow — Coretta Scott King — has been a nonprofit foundation with a mission to continue the civil rights leader’s legacy of nonviolent social change with goals of eliminating poverty, war and racism around the world. The board is made up of family members with one exception — former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, who had worked side-by-side with the civil rights leader.
King III is proud of what he has been able to accomplish during his most recent tenure as CEO of the King Center.
“During the past 18 months of service as CEO/President, I conceived and launched the JP Morgan Chase Digitization Project, significantly reduced the legacy debt (Wells Fargo), and charted a plan for the future with the King Center Renovation project,” King III wrote in his resignation letter.
It was King III who had spearheaded plans for a $100 million renovation and expansion of the King Center.
“I would hope the board would not accept Martin’s resignation,” Young said in a telephone interview Jan. 18. “Martin was doing a very good job running the center.”
In his resignation letter, King III also expressed displeasure that the board had named him to a powerless position when his sister had been named CEO.
“Notwithstanding the record accomplishments during my tenure as CEO/President during the past eighteen months, on January 5, 2012, the King Center Board of Trustees’ removed me from the position of CEO and took away all of the executive powers and responsibilities from the remaining position of President,” King III wrote.
Although he said he would remain as an active board member, King III said he could not serve as the Center’s president.
King III concluded his letter with this statement: “I cannot continue in a mere ceremonial position and request that you reconsider your efforts which not only undermine the legacy of my father and the vision of my mother, but places the public foundation status of the Center in jeopardy.”
The King Center issued a brief statement late Jan. 17 on King III’s resignation: “The Board of Trustees of The King Center today received news of Martin Luther King III’s resignation from the presidency of the King Center. While his decision does not reflect the wishes of the Board, we accept his resignation. We understand that he will continue in his capacity as a member of the Board of Trustees. We wish him the best in his endeavors.”
King III is creating “an Internet-driven organization” to support young leaders around the world in their efforts for nonviolent social justice and human rights. He said more information will be forthcoming in the next month or so.
According to several people close to King III, this is not a new power struggle or philosophical disagreement.
For years, Dexter King has been leading the effort to maximize the financial return of the family’s assets. Dexter King, who lives in Malibu, Calif., has continued to serve as chairman of the King Center.
At the same time, Dexter King also served as the longtime president of King Inc. It was King Inc. that had negotiated the $32 million sale of a large collection of MLK’s papers to the Atlanta community in June 2006.
Morehouse College later was designated as the caretaker of those papers. The collection is supposed to be a centerpiece of the proposed National Center for Civil and Human Rights that is being developed north of Centennial Olympic Park.
After selling the papers, Martin and Bernice King sued their brother for not releasing the financial records of King Inc. That legal dispute was laid to rest when a custodian was appointed in March 2010 to oversee the operations of the for-profit entity.
Historically, there has been a general understanding that King Inc. would be the for-profit arm while the King Center would continue as a nonprofit foundation with the public purpose of furthering the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King. But apparently the separation between the for-profit King Inc. and nonprofit King Center began to blur in late 2011 as some members of the family began talking about unifying the two entities.
“There has always been a gray area over which assets belong to the King Center and which assets belong to King Inc.,” said one person who has been close to the situation. “Dexter’s purpose has been to make money. And to maximize the profit, they need to have control over the King assets that are in the King Center. This could put the public foundation at risk.”
Opponents of the plan to make the King Center an extension of King Inc. also feared that the move would reignite criticism that the King family has been more focused on personal profit rather than the King legacy.
This recent rift exposes the fact that there has been a divide among the siblings over what is most important — protecting the King legacy or seeking to personally profit from the King assets.
Aware of the conversations, Andrew Young had asked that no action be taken until late January after the King holiday festivities. “I had asked them to wait until after the Salute to Greatness dinner to get the full board together to discuss the future of the center,” said Young, who felt that there had been an agreement between board members.
But when Young was on a plane to South Africa, a conference call board meeting took place on Jan. 5. That’s when a majority of the board voted to change the leadership at the King Center and to make it an extension of King Inc.
In addition to Young and the three King children (Martin III, Bernice and Dexter), the board includes MLK’s sister — Christine King Farris — and two cousins.
King III said he hopes their differences could be resolved in the future.
“We have been entrusted as a family with an unusual jewel,” King III said. “I would like to think there are some areas on which we can agree.”
Young, who became almost like a father to the King children when their father was assassinated in 1968, has a similar hope.
“They can’t hurt the King legacy — it’s too strong. It just pains me that they hurt each other,” Young said of the three siblings. “They have regular family disagreements because they are strong-willed people. I’ve always tried to be a unifying force, and I will still try to do that, even when I disagree with them.”