The War Over
By Vern E. Smith and John Leland
When the nation lost its modern-day prophet, they lost their dad. Burdened by a famous name, they've struggled to find themselves in a world where everyone else thinks they know who the Kings should be. Behind Martin Luther King Inc.
As his father did,
The battles are seldom far outside the walls. Since succeeding his mother as president of the nonprofit King Center in 1994, Dexter--the younger son, named after his father's first pulpit in Montgomery, Ala.--has steered the family ship according to his own entrepreneurial instincts, provoking resentments both ideological and generational. "They have done unquestionable harm to Dr. King's legacy," says Hosea Williams, King's old march organizer, who now runs a local program to feed the hungry. "They are peddling him."
Dexter has established control with a heavy hand. Spurning the sentimentality of his elders, he turned to representatives of Graceland for advice. Along with college friend Phillip Jones, he has formed a multimedia joint venture with Time Warner and boldly predicts he'll bring the family $30 million to $50 million for the rights to Dr. King's old writings as well as new books by Dexter and his mother, Coretta Scott King. He and Jones have vigorously policed the family copyrights, suing news organizations for using the "I have a dream" speech. As Dexter lobbies to reopen the case of James Earl Ray, shaking Ray's hand on CNN, he has made a deal with Oliver Stone to provide materials for a film about King's last years.
For 30 years the children of Dr. King have grown up in his light, the First Family of black America. They are heirs to his dream, but also to the nightmare of the post-King era: four kids raised fatherless, in a home torn by violence (six years after their father's death, their grandmother was murdered while playing the organ at Ebenezer). Unlike the Kennedys, they have scarcely been seen outside close circles. When the children and Coretta all agreed to lengthy interviews for this story, it was a first in their memory.
In the center's elegantly appointed conference room, a rich foothold in the mostly impoverished Sweet Auburn neighborhood, Dexter's three siblings--Yolanda, 42; Martin III, 40, and Bernice, 35--defer by habit to their brother. The four of them are trying to call up a family story, their own piece of their father's legacy. What was that song Daddy used to mess with at the piano, one asks, just the first half of it? No one can remember--Bernice and Dexter were so young when their father died, just 5 and 7, respectively--and the fragment of memory slips away. Like many adult siblings, they tellingly fall into familiar roles. Yolanda, the only one who moved from Atlanta, remembers back when she used to sneak smokes as a teenager (not too young, she says with a laugh: "After all, I was a preacher's daughter") and Dexter caught her out. "I would have told on you," confesses Martin III. Dexter took a different tack. "I cut a deal with you, Yolanda," he remembers. "I wouldn't tell, as long as you would drive me around."
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