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.