Bill Torpy at Large: The Ka-ching Kings can’t work out deal with D.C. museum


Later this month, the long-awaited National Museum of African American History and Culture will open in Washington D.C.

The $570 million, 400,000-square-foot museum will contain an airplane flown by a Tuskegee airman, a lunch counter stool from the sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C., tiny shackles that fit a child, Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac and Harriet Tubman’s shawl.

It will not, however, contain any major artifacts from Martin Luther King Jr.

The story, first reported this week in the Washington Post, provided one more chance to shake your head at the King family, who, led by Dexter, his youngest son, has cheapened his father’s legacy by hanging price tags all over it.

The Post reported that King’s children called the museum with “an intriguing invitation,” that a curator traveled to Atlanta, reverently held the civil rights leader’s traveling Bible and then left without any arrangement.

You might remember that Bible. President Obama used it for his second inauguration (I believe free of charge) and it was also the focus of the latest King family feud. The King lads — Dexter and Martin III — squared off in court against sister Bernice. She didn’t want to sell the Bible and their father’s Nobel Prize medal, calling them sacred. Her brothers saw cash flow.

The case was settled last month. Hello, highest bidder.

Andrew Young, the ambassador and former Atlanta mayor who was with King when he was killed, seemed weary and a bit sad to be speaking about the King kids once again.

“This is a very complicated thing,” he told me. “There’s a lot of resentment on the part of a lot of black people who want to think Martin is everyone’s property.”

He said the King family was left with little when King was killed in 1968, and was kept afloat by an insurance policy taken out by the singer Harry Belafonte. (I may point out that Belafonte and the King children fought in court a few years ago when they tried to stop the singer from selling papers King gave him to raise money for charity. For charity!)

The King children have “had to monetize,” said Young. “You can’t expect them to be like their father.”

Dr. King started to focus his energies on economic justice toward the end of his life. His offspring have subverted that tradition, making lots of money for lawyers and themselves as they have zealously guarded their father’s words and image.

King as a speaker had a marvelous sense of timing. His kids do, too. The King estate (i.e., Dexter and Martin III, who seems to get pushed around by his little brother) filed suit on Aug. 28, 2013, to put sister Bernice on administrative leave from the King Center and to bounce Young, who is almost their uncle, from the board. That date was the 50th anniversary of the “I Have a Dream Speech,” which you can rent if you have your Visa ready.

True, the Kings have suffered untold tragedy and they own their father’s memory, or at least his copyrighted words, which Dr. King was wise enough to do, leaving them a legacy. And they have thrived, especially with Dexter, a capitalist at heart, at the helm. Years ago, he visited the Elvis Presley estate to see if the other King’s handlers could give him some tips.

And Dexter has had the King Midas touch, helping land a lucrative deal with Time Warner in the 1990s. A decade later, the estate sold some 7,000 pages of King’s papers for $32 million to an Atlanta group worried the collection might end up elsewhere. The private fund raising stalled during the recession and the city ponied up about a third of the cost. The papers are now at Morehouse and the city’s Civil Rights museum, the one next to Coke’s.

They say the African American museum in D.C. has been 100 years in the making. And civil rights icon C.T Vivian has been alive for most of that.

The 92-year-old is headed to Washington for the Sept. 24 opening, getting a personal invite from Obama, who in 2013 awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

He hadn’t heard the museum would have no major King artifacts.

“That hurts because I can’t even imagine that there’s anyone who wouldn’t want to be involved, especially at the top of the ladder,” he said when reached at his Atlanta home.

“I used to say, ‘This is our Royal Family. Why not make sure they have money?’ ” he paused, adding “but…”

And then he paused again, not wanting to say anything untoward about the Royal Family.

Taylor Branch, who authored a trilogy of books on King’s life, chuckled when I mentioned the museum couldn’t work out anything with the family.

“They wouldn’t be the first,” he said, adding the family went hot and cold with him decades ago as he researched King. But that was in the ’80s before the kids ran the show.

Branch has been on the museum’s historical advisory board and said King wouldn’t necessarily be the focus. “It’s about how African American history is intertwined with American history,” he said. “It’s not about one person.”

He said one section of the museum is called “Making a Way Out of No Way,” a reference to an old saying about overcoming obstacles.

“There’s a lot of ways to tell a story and artifacts aren’t the only way to do it,” he said. “You’ve got to make a way out of no way.”


Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Local

Smyrna Council approves self-storage facility
Smyrna Council approves self-storage facility

A climate-controlled self-storage building was approved 5-1 June 18 by the Smyrna City Council. Opposed was Councilwoman Maryline Blackburn. Spring Road Space Shop will be built on 2.7 acres at 2520 Spring Road - now the site of a vacant retail center that will be demolished this week. The three-story building will be 109,635 square feet of storage...
Marietta’s new budget has no tax or fee hikes
Marietta’s new budget has no tax or fee hikes

The Marietta City Council adopted a balanced budget for Fiscal Year 2019 on June 13 with no service reductions and no tax or fee increases. Marietta’s millage rate, supporting governmental services, remains the same at 2.788 mills, according to a city statement. The city’s overall FY 2019 budget is $ $317.7 million, including the $59.7...
NIH launches historic research project in Atlanta
NIH launches historic research project in Atlanta

National Institutes of Health’s All of Us Research Program is a historic effort to gather data from one million or more people living in the United States to accelerate research and improve health. By taking into account individual differences in lifestyle, environment, and biology, researchers will uncover paths toward delivering precision medicine...
World Refugee Day celebration Saturday in Clarkston
World Refugee Day celebration Saturday in Clarkston

The Coalition of Refugee Service Agencies will host a World Refugee Day Celebration at Refuge Coffee Co., 4170 E Ponce de Leon Ave NE, Clarkston, according to a press release. The event will celebrate and honor the vast contributions that refugees make to communities and to urge elected leaders to protect the U.S. refugee resettlement program. The...
Torpy at Large: ‘Homes from the $500s!’ So, where do regular folks go?
Torpy at Large: ‘Homes from the $500s!’ So, where do regular folks go?

Robert Kee knew his intown Atlanta neighborhood had inordinately changed when he saw a jogger dragging some weights on wheels. “You could see the turn right there because no one would try that crap five years ago,” said the computer programmer who lives in Reynoldstown, a gentrifying neighborhood 3 miles east of downtown. Kee, who is white...
More Stories