The War Over
King's Legacy

The Truth
About Memphis

The Children Who Would Be King
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,
Dexter Scott King has a dream. On a March afternoon Dexter, 37, gazes out from the second-story window of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, and does not like what he sees.

Martin Luther King Jr. and his family. (The Washington Post)
There is history in his vision: next door sits Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Dexter's father and grandfather preached; a few doors back, at 501 Auburn Avenue, is the tidy Queen Anne-style house where his father grew up. But there is also, in Dexter's eye, a frustratingly untapped field of commercial possibilities--of shops and restaurants, of gentrification, he says, in the same susurrant tones with which his father invoked justice or equality. The center is of red brick, clean and airy, but like the sites of many King family gatherings these days, it can quickly feel like a fortress against a disapproving outside world. Dexter's dream, he says, is thwarted not primarily by racism but by the recalcitrance and criticism of his civil-rights elders. "They don't want to do anything," he says, "unless they can control it themselves."

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.

Martin Luther King Sr. (known as 'Daddy King') grandmother Alberta, Coretta and Martin with the children out for a stroll in Atlanta in 1964. (Scheler/Black Star)
To cut the center's mushrooming deficits, Dexter has taken steps that rattled both the local community and civil-rights veterans. Declaring that the center was never a civil-rights organization, Dexter slashed its staff and programs. Its archives are currently closed to historians. He purged the center's contentious board, ousted some of his father's old comrades and angered his neighbors by trying to block an Auburn Avenue visitors center that eventually brought $11 million into a poor neighborhood. Now he wants to sell the King Center property and donate Dr. King's crypt, hallowed ground of the Movement, to the National Park Service--a sanctuary of nonviolent resistance to government, handed over to the Feds.

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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