Martin Luther King Jr.’s children called the museum with an intriguing invitation.
“It was heavier than I thought it would be,” remembers Ellis, the museum’s associate director of curatorial affairs. “Not only was it the weight of the object itself but the weight of what it was. You’re holding it like it’s a baby. I was uncomfortable holding it for long.”
Ellis and his colleagues didn’t hold it for long. The half-hour meeting with Martin III ended without a loan, a gift or any other promises. The Bible and a second key item, the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to King in 1964, were placed back into a bank vault.
When the museum opens Sept. 24, no major artifacts from the civil rights icon will be on display.
“It’s outrageous,” said Clarence Jones, the former King attorney who filed the copyright for his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. “This is the Smithsonian. This is not just another party. This is one of the most important institutions now in the 21st century. And this is probably the greatest civil rights leader in the 20th century. I find it shameful and I’m sad.”
Jones doesn’t blame the museum’s curators, instead focusing on the widely known obstacle historians, filmmakers and others have faced for years: King’s children, Bernice, Martin III and Dexter.
For years, the siblings have blocked media outlets from using King's words or image without paying what some have described as exorbitant licensing fees. The nonprofit foundation that built the monument to King on the Mall, finished in 2011, paid $800,000. The estate also has sued when they think they are not being sufficiently compensated. That included going after King's close friend Harry Belafonte when the actor and singer wanted to sell letters and other papers given him by King for charity. Belafonte eventually sued the King estate and won the right to bring the items to auction. In 2013, the King estate, as part of a lawsuit, demanded that Andrew Young, another King confidant and the former mayor of Atlanta, be removed from the board of the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change after his foundation used material featuring King in a documentary. The case was dismissed.
The children have taken each other to court repeatedly. Bernice and Martin III once sued Dexter. Dexter sued them back. Most recently, Martin and Dexter sued Bernice over who has the authority to sell the Nobel Peace Prize and Bible. Former President Jimmy Carter was brought in to help mediate an agreement. Last month, a judge settled it instead, clearing the way for the brothers to sell the Nobel Prize and Bible.
Given these seemingly endless conflicts, historian David J. Garrow said he’s not surprised that the museum will open without a single item given or loaned by the King family.
"I could not be more cynical, more jaded on this subject," said Garrow, who won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for his book "Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference." "Given the family's behavior this last 20 years, they're unlikely to have any interest in sharing without a large upfront payment."
It’s not clear what the King children plan to do with the precious items now that the latest round of lawsuits is resolved.
Attempts to talk with the siblings offer a glimpse into the delicacy of the relationship.
For a week, the family did not respond to repeated requests for interviews. Finally, Dexter King asked Phillip Jones, a friend and the general manager of the King estate, to respond. In an interview Thursday night, Jones said the family would be open to the artifacts ending up in the museum but that there had been no discussions about how that might occur. The King children, he said, have been focused on repairing the relationships damaged by the most recent lawsuit.
“It’s an extraordinary museum and the family believes that, certainly,” said Jones. “And we think it would be wonderful if these items were there. We just haven’t been able to focus on it.”
But on Friday morning, Jones spoke to Dexter King, who told him he was not authorized to speak for the family, only the estate. Jones demanded that references to “family” or “we” be removed from any of his previous quotes.
“It would not even be this way if there had not been legal disagreements between these family members who are trying to heal,” said Jones. “[Dexter] reminded me how sensitive things are.”
It’s important to note that the museum has not asked to borrow items from the family.
Museum Director Lonnie Bunch said that’s because the museum prefers to seek out permanent works that don’t need to be returned. Michèle Gates Moresi, supervisory museum curator of collections, who also went on the January visit to Atlanta to see the Kings, described the meeting as a first step in building a relationship. In addition, the curators knew the legal dispute still hovered over the items and that, even if they were available to buy, the museum doesn’t have that kind of money on hand.
“I knew this was just going to be an exploratory face-to-face, a chance to get to meet them,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting going in that a miracle would happen and things would change overnight just because they met with us.”
Ellis said that while there are no “major” artifacts from King in the new museum, he believes the exhibitions and works on display tell the story of the civil rights movement. There are 165 items listed under King at the museum, the majority of them photographs, vinyl records and buttons.
“There are artifacts that we wish we did have from his personal collection,” Ellis said, “but I would not say that what we have represents a missed opportunity.”
Young, despite his past issues with the King children, hopes that critics think about what the siblings have been through. They were children when their 39-year-old father was assassinated in Memphis, and he did not leave them much money.
“It was not only losing their father, but their grandmother was shot at the organ playing the Lord’s Prayer, in church,” said Young, who marched in Selma with King and was with him when he died. “Their uncle drowned mysteriously in his own swimming pool. . . . It’s been a really difficult road.”
But Young also is frustrated. He has reminded his own children, he said, that the family legacy is “theirs and nobody could take it away from them but it wasn’t to be monetized.”
In 2006, Young said, he helped encourage the fundraising to buy King’s papers when the four siblings — the oldest, Yolanda, died in 2007 — announced they planned to sell them at Sotheby’s. Then-Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin raised $32 million to buy the papers and place them at King’s alma mater, Morehouse College.
“I would have thought that would have been more than enough for four people to live on,” Young said. “But they spent their money suing each other about I don’t know what.”
This reputation for being difficult and litigious is one reason why museum leaders did not expect much from the King estate.
“I think I had low expectations,” said Spencer Crew, a guest curator and former director of the National Museum of American History. “That came from having been at the Museum of American History and having curators there who, even with good relationships, couldn’t exact things from them.”
Clayborne Carson, the Stanford University professor selected by Coretta Scott King to edit her husband’s papers, said that the challenges of working with the siblings are no secret.
“They’ve made clear that they’re not going to just give away his legacy, so I just think realistically you have to move on,” he said. “Yes, it would be nice if they simply donated what they had inherited from their father but I’m not sure how many people put in the same situation would. If your father was Frank Lloyd Wright and you inherited one of his famous homes and somebody said you should donate it to the public because it’s an historic structure, you would say no. It just happens with King there is a sense that we all own him.”
Jones, of the King estate, said the family has not been reluctant to make loans. He points to an exhibit at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, which includes the suit King wore when he met with President Lyndon B. Johnson.
“It’s extraordinary that anyone would make a claim that the family has been difficult regarding borrowing items of memorabilia when, in fact, the majority of memorabilia has been on loan,” Jones said.
Deborah Richardson, executive vice president of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, said she does not believe the lack of major King material will diminish the new museum. The museum’s purpose, she said, is much wider in scope, meant to cover the entire range of the African American experience.
“To me, that’s so much bigger and so much more important,” she said. “Dr. King, if you look at the whole arc of our experience, thousands of years before there were records of Western society, Dr. King and his work is just a blip.”
Clarence Jones, the former King confidant, took issue with that.
“Would you say Paul Robeson was a blip?” he said. “Frederick Douglass was a blip? It is impossible for you to talk about the African American experience in the 20th century without having Martin Luther King Jr. be the centerpiece of that discussion.”