Was This a Shakedown or Not? MLK Family Paid $800,000 for Father’s Memorial

by Dr. Boyce Watkins, Your Black World – Scholarship in Action

The world has become uncomfortable with the “revelation” that Dr. Martin Luther King’s family has been paid several hundred thousand dollars for the new memorial being built for Dr. King in Washington.   It turns out that the family is being paid a “management fee” of a little more than $800,000, partly in exchange for their support of the monument.  I’m admittedly surprised by the recent public reaction to the payment, since the information was revealed by the press nearly two years ago.

One can understand the justified public outrage that the King children (who have made a series of questionable choices over the years) stand to profit from the memorial that is being celebrated by all of us.  It comes off as distasteful that the blood and sweat of those who marched with Dr. King has been translated into Mercedes Benz payments, expensive vacations and indoor swimming pools.

While I have publicly stated that I do no plan to go to the King Memorial dedication ceremony, my absence is out of protest, not disrespect for those who genuinely appreciate Dr. King’s contribution.   I’m not comfortable standing shoulder-to-shoulder with profit-hungry, predatory, racist politicians and profiteers who pretend that they’ve absorbed the lessons of Dr. King, but have no interest in advocating for policies that Dr. King would have supported.  With black unemployment being the highest that its been in the last 24 years, almost no politician in Washington can claim to represent the legacy of Dr. King.

The King family claims that the funds are being used to compensate their foundation for lost donations they would have received had the memorial not been built.  They are not charging for the use of King’s likeness, but are charging for the use of his words and image.

“I don’t think the Jefferson family, the Lincoln family … I don’t think any other group of family ancestors has been paid a licensing fee for a memorial in Washington,” said Cambridge University historian David Garrow, who wrote a well-respected biography of Dr. King. “One would think any family would be so thrilled to have their forefather celebrated and memorialized in D.C. that it would never dawn on them to ask for a penny.”

Garrow goes on to say that Dr. King would have been “absolutely scandalized by the profiteering behavior of his children.”

One area in which I must disagree with Garrow is in his comparison of Dr. King with Lincoln and Jefferson.  First, Lincoln and Jefferson were both dead at least 150 years ago.  It would be difficult for their families to maintain the rights to their images after such a long period of time.  Dr. King’s children are…well…his children, so a first-generational wealth transfer is far more acceptable than Dr. King’s descendants seeking to get paid in the year 2100.

Secondly, Jefferson and Lincoln are former Presidents of the United States.   Their decision to enter into official government service led to compensation for their families, and also to the relinquishment of some of the rights to their own images and likenesses.  Sasha and Malia Obama can’t rightly claim to own the rights to their father’s image, in part because their father officially “gave himself to everyone.”

While Dr. King certainly belongs to all of us, I am not convinced that any efforts by King’s family to be compensated for the memorial amount to pure extortion.  Dr. King was never fairly compensated in life for his sacrifices to the public, so I am sure he would like for his children to be taken care of.  I certainly know that if the name “Dr. Boyce Watkins” were to ever become a multi-billion dollar commodity, I’d want my kids to get paid before everyone else.  And believe me, EVERYONE is making a profit from the mass commercialization of Dr. King’s image, which has served to water down his legacy.

The King children can be defended to a point, but the reality is that most of us are and should be uncomfortable with the idea that they’ve been quick to collect cash, but very slow to engage in the same leadership sacrifices that made their father famous.  To some extent, the King children appear content to just sit back in the shadows and soak up the dividends from their father’s legacy, like preppy private school children with a huge trust fund.  They do not appear to be equipped for battle in the same way as their father.

Is the King family payment unconventional?  Yes.  It is criminal or patently unethical?  I’m not so sure.  The truth is that if these children were from the Kennedy or Bush families, they would already be wealthy beyond belief.  But being the descendants of slaves, where family wealth was stolen from us for over 400 years, you have to make your money wherever you can.

In other words, the King Memorial costs $120 million to build, so I could care less about $800,000.  It’s always a scandal when some black family collects a tiny sum of money, but no one pays attention to the multi-billion dollar crooks on Wall Street and Capitol Hill.  This is no different from the NCAA, who can pay a coach $5 million dollars for recruiting a star athlete, but finds is unconscionable that the mother of this star player received a payment of $10,000.  One of the artifacts of racism in America is that any perceived ethical short-coming of black folks is magnified, while other groups have their shady behavior overlooked (hence, why black men fill up the penitentiaries for some of the very same drug crimes that are committed on college campuses every weekend)

So, the point here is that I don’t personally agree with the King family’s decision to take money for the memorial.  But before we criticize the Kings, we should criticize the corporations, politicians and others who engage in far more heinous activity.   There are far dirtier players in this game then Dexter King and his siblings.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Professor at Syracuse University and founder of the Your Black World Coalition.  To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here. 



Filed under African Americans

23 responses to “Was This a Shakedown or Not? MLK Family Paid $800,000 for Father’s Memorial

  1. Pingback: Was This a Shakedown or Not? MLK Family Paid $800,000 for Father’s Memorial « Black Gossip, Black America, Black Celebrities

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  11. You said,
    “While Dr. King certainly belongs to all of us, I am not convinced that any efforts by King’s family to be compensated for the memorial amount to pure extortion. Dr. King was never fairly compensated in life for his sacrifices to the public, so I am sure he would like for his children to be taken care of.”

    Exactly, and period.

    And sa for the children living up to his legacy, in a perfect world that would be nice, but in reality, they have their own lives to live. Would you feel obliged to give half you earnings to a preacher just because you parents did. The only thing they owe to their father’s legacy is to respect it.

    And finally, with regard to you boycotting the dedication because of having to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with hypocrites, what does that have to do with honoring Martin Luther King? That doesn’t stop you from going to work or on television shows and sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with hypocrites. So what’s the difference, other than you don’t get paid for honoring King?

    So you see, we’re all hypocrites to a greater or lesser degree – including King himself, unless he was superhuman, which I doubt.

  12. BuckwheatsMomma

    The King “children” have been paid all along with funds from the MLK foundation all these years!

    I have never seen any rule that says his children had to be taken care of, especially after they were grown!

    In the meantime all one has to do is to go to the King Memorial in ATL to see the unkept memorial to their father!

    The pool is cracked in many places and looks awful!

    The building itself is absolutely dirty! The walls look as if they are never cleaned. All around the light fixtures are dirty hand prints and grease!

    The stairs/carpets are filthy with stains as well as the elevator!

    It is a disgrace, and the King children need to feel ashamed that they have allowed this to happen to their parents resting place.

    I do not know if it is the city’s responsibility (even if it is the children should see that it is taken care of), or whomever, but they need to do something about it!

    This “memorial” looks like some run down, ghetto mess.

    Dexter is running around LA living large in multi-million dollar Malibu properties trying to be an actor, the other boy seems not to have any profession/ambition, and Bernice who appears to be a Lesbian and has been living with her partner for well over 20 years, found out that being a minister can be profitable!

    Frankly, these children seem not to care about their father’s legacy as much as others around the world cares. They have used his memory as financial gain for themselves! Many have said that the King children need to get jobs. It is not the publics responsibility to take care of them.

  13. jerry Washington

    Dr.King’s children were left with very little resources when their father died. There for they will continue to reap the benefits that most corporations are willing to pay.

  14. We need to stop trying to look over their shoulders. They are not Martin Luther King, and they didn’t ask to be his children. They are private individuals, so we need to stop trying to shove our values and agendas down their throats.

    They deserve anything they can get, and they have a right to privacy. And besides, how many of us would turn down $800,000? I know I damn sure wouldn’t – I don’t care what the circumstances involved, as long as it’s legal. I only wish my father had a legacy I could pimp. I’d be all over it – and with his blessings.

  15. Soul Sistah For My Folks

    I’m glad they are being paid. How many people have written books and have made a profit. I hope they make good use of the money so that future generations of Dr. King will be financially comfortable. We have all gained from Dr. Kings life and his death. I wish the family could make money every time he was quoted in public or from any book or likeness used in the media.

    Dr. Boyce I don’t understand your reasoning as to why you don’t want to attend his memorial. Who cares who else is there or why they have chosen to come. I think in time you will regret that you missed the opportunity to be a witness. If you don’t show up with love in your heart for this great man then you let what you protest against win. Show up and be part of the solution instead of staying away and being part of the problem.

  16. Karren Gray

    I live in Atlanta and I don’t think any of them have done anythng with their lives , expect profit off their name. I haven’t heard of any of them having a job or any viable income as I state . I heard there Mother left them millons and now their greedy selves want to be paid for the memorial of their father. They should all be ashamed of themselves and what they need to do is get employment and stop getting rich off your father name.

  17. I think it is a blessing that the family will gain financially from the memorial. STOP judging people. Dr. King sacraficed his life for us and his children had to grow up without thier father and now their mother is gone as well. To the children i hope that you are making wise investment and decisions with the money to continue to keep your fathers name alive! God Bless!

  18. Tony


    Please don’t forget, this is America, and it always “all about the money”. If someone is willing to pay the King family, they most certainly should take the money without hesitation.

  19. D.a.g

    The actions of Dr. King’s children regarding the commercialization of Dr.King’s legacy is a clear cut example of the full throated impact of coporate America to commercialize the amazing efforts and accomplishment of King and the “movement” to dramatically impact America!

  20. EloracDesigns

    Is it a fact the King children don’t work regular jobs? What schools or higher education have they pursued? I looked on line but could not find anything except, the late Bernice’s pursuit of an acting career, then the ministry. Even Malcolm’s children had a rough time……I think the trauma of the impact of the lives and deaths of these two famous men had a devastating effect on how their children perceive themselves and the expectations of a public who wanted “more” from both leaders! The children should, as you pointed out, Dr. Boyce, benefit $ from their parents legacy. The talk of fancy cars and swimming pools is silly. Most of us buy fancy cars and put pools for the backyard as soon as we can afford them through an inheritance or credit granting bank, so that example is pure nonsense. I have never seen the King children on “Cribs” TV program, strutting their stuff…..or in the tabloids at the latest club wearing expensive watches with their posse…….? Maybe I’m missing something, but I think the King children have been fighting like crazy for years to keep the legacy of their parents out of the hands of vultures who were on the balcony or jumped on the balcony the second Dr. King’s body hit the pavement of the floor of that Terrace at the Lorraine Motel that April day.! And, Dr. Boyce, I, too am not sure why you won’t attend the memorial dedication. You should go for yourself and your family – not because of anything or anyone else. I will go as soon as I can afford to, especially during President Obama’s administration. We have to support each other and stop the stupid “Smiley & Co.” negativity.

  21. Pingback: Negro Defends $800 K Payment to MLK Family for MLK Memorial - Stormfront

  22. Susa

    The family should not have been paid and I don’t remember anyone asking the American people to vote on whether this monument should ever have been built and placed in Washington DC. It my personal opinion, it should not have been. Only presidents should be honored.

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