January 14, 2006
Disarray at Center for Dr. King Casts Pall on Family and Legacy
By SHAILA DEWAN
ATLANTA, Jan. 13 - Over the years, the city that the Rev. Dr.
Martin Luther King Jr. called home has grown accustomed to
stagnation and disrepair at the institution established in his name
by Coretta Scott King in 1968, even as it has paid her sons
But now as Mrs. King is recovering from a stroke that left
her partly paralyzed and unable to speak, problems at the nonprofit
institution, the King Center, have become so bad that some family
members are pushing to sell its buildings.
That proposal and myriad other difficulties - including a
federal investigation into the center's use of taxpayer money and an
estimate by the National Park Service that the complex of buildings
needs $11 million in repairs - have deepened a rift among Dr. King's
four children, two of whom vehemently oppose a sale, and further
reduced the center's standing.
"The center really had the potential to be a nonviolent
change agent," said Mtamanika Youngblood, who recently stepped down
as executive director of the community development organization for
Sweet Auburn, the King Center's neighborhood. "That opportunity may
The Rev. Joseph Lowery, among Dr. King's top lieutenants,
said that he had not taken sides in the family dispute but that he
worried about its toll on Mrs. King, who long ago relinquished
leadership of the center to her sons.
Mr. Lowery said that when he visited Mrs. King recently, she
insisted on walking without assistance.
"When she got to the sofa she almost collapsed," he said.
"And this can't help her."
Originally envisioned as a "living memorial" to Dr. King, the
center does not offer much to visitors. Three small permanent
exhibitions are tucked away on a second floor. The ecumenical chapel
is customarily locked. Kingfest, an annual cultural event, was
discontinued years ago.
Of the activities surrounding Martin Luther King Day on
Monday - a symposium on human rights, a youth conference, film
screenings, a march - the King Center is involved in only three, a
board member said, including a fund-raiser for the center and a
signing for a new book by one daughter, Yolanda King, "Embracing Your
Power in 30 Days."
Last month, the center's board, controlled by Dr. King's
younger son, Dexter Scott King, announced it was considering the sale
of the King Center complex, which has been appraised at $11 million,
to the National Park Service. Martin Luther King III, the elder son,
and his sister Bernice soon called a news conference in protest.
"Bernice and I stand to differ with those who would sell our
father's legacy and barter our mother's vision, whether it is for 30
pieces of silver or $30 million," Martin King said, adding that the
sale of "irreplaceable assets of the African-American community"
undermines its pride and cultural capital.
Acknowledging that the board, which until recently had been
made up almost entirely of family members, had been "remiss" in its
oversight and programming, Mr. King said the solution was to
strengthen and diversify the board. Bernice King said government
ownership would result in a loss of ideological independence.
None of the four King children responded to requests for
interviews. and the center did not answer repeated requests for
information. In a brief phone conversation, a center spokesman said
he could not provide a list of the board members because he did not
know who they were.
One member, Dr. King's sister, Christine King Farris, spoke
briefly to a reporter but declined to comment on the family's
Asked about the center's programs, Ms. Farris said, "We've
done a lot, we've done training and publications and so forth, we've
done quite a bit."
Mr. Lowery said he sympathized with both sides in the
disagreement. On the one hand, he said, the center has been saddled
with the expense of caring for its building and grounds, which
include an administration building, a public building, a reflection
pool and Dr. King's crypt. On the other hand, he said, it was
reasonable for the Kings to hesitate before selling the property to a
federal government that spied on their father and sought to
destabilize the civil rights movement.
To the children, the legacy of Dr. King has provided both a
source of pride and the burden of high expectations and scrutiny, Mr.
"I don't have any problem with the family making money," he
said. "I'd like to see them rich. As long as they didn't neglect the
In earlier years, there might have been considerable public
resistance to selling the King Center complex. But now, many think it
is the right move for the organization and could allow it to refocus
"Do we let the King Center fall apart just for the sake of
holding on?" asked Tyrone Brooks, the head of the Georgia Association
of Black Elected Officials.
The center, originally called the Martin Luther King Jr.
Center for Nonviolent Social Change, was founded by Mrs. King after
her husband's assassination. She raised $8 million to build the
current complex in 1981. Its mission statement calls for building "a
national and international network of organizations" that promote
"the Beloved Community that Dr. King envisioned."
The complex is within the boundaries of the national King
historic site, which encompasses a section of Auburn Avenue that
includes Dr. King's birth home; Ebenezer Baptist Church, where three
generations of Kings served as pastors; and a visitor's center run by
the National Park Service.
The district is one of the South's most popular tourist
sites, with 600,000 visitors a year. For years, the Park Service,
which also gives tours of the church and home, has been eager to buy
the King Center's physical property, in part because of visitor
complaints about the center's condition, and in part to expand its
exhibition space and gain access to the center's rarely used
auditorium. The terms of a sale would probably allow the King Center
to continue to occupy part of the complex.
Public attention focused on the aging King Center almost a
year ago, when The Atlanta Journal Constitution began a series of
investigative articles about its finances. The articles revealed that
the King Center needed repairs and ended most years with a deficit,
yet paid Dexter King almost $180,000 and Martin King $150,000 in
salaries and had given millions to a for-profit company run by Dexter
Center officials told the newspaper that the company,
Intellectual Properties Management, was a contractor that provided
many of the center's employees. The articles prompted an
investigation into the center's finances by the Interior Department,
which had recently increased the center's annual stipend to $1
million from $500,000, and at about the same time the Education
Department began investigating the center's use of grant money given
to develop a civil rights curriculum, Park Service officials said.
At the close of the last fiscal year, the board members voted
to take the chairmanship from Dexter and give it to his brother
Martin, who then had the King Center's locks changed.
A month later, the locks were changed again, amid reports
that Dexter King had regained control, appointed eight additional
board members and installed his cousin, Isaac Scott Farris, as
president. At the news conference last month, Martin King called the
new board "an unconstitutional arrangement."
Dexter King's entrepreneurial spirit has generated
controversy since the moment he first took control of the King Center
board in 1994 as his mother's designated successor. He battled the
Park Service over land where he wanted to build an interactive,
for-profit museum, disbanded the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday
commission because it was a fund-raising competitor and licensed his
father's image to cellular phone companies for commercials.
Dexter King, who has always been clear about the fact that he
does not consider himself a civil rights leader, said he was trying
to reach a new audience through projects like an MTV biography of Dr.
At the same time, the King Center discontinued its
nonviolence training seminars and symposiums. Critics, including the
civil rights leaders Hosea Williams and the Rev. Joseph Roberts, the
recently retired pastor of Ebenezer, complained that the King Center
had failed to take the lead on contemporary issues like poverty,
voting rights and the Iraq war. Scholars said access to the center's
archives, a trove of civil rights-era documents, was restricted.
"To think that these folks have multimillion-dollar budgets -
what do they do with them?" said Bob Holmes, a state representative
and director of the Southern Center for Studies in Public Policy at
Clark-Atlanta University. "I ask my grad students, 'Can you name any
activity you've been involved in or you know about that the King
Center does?' And they can't."