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FIRST-PERSON: Can a King be silenced?

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (BP)–The most current King controversy involves moves by his survivors to protect the intellectual property of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Of these actions by his family, much has been said and made of them by media personalities, by politicians and by private citizens who feel that the legacy of Dr. King, his works and ideas belong instead to the national trust and should not be the sole property of his family only.

But nearly a decade after King’s death in April 1968, a federal law authorized by Article I, Section 8, of the U.S. Constitution did indeed grant sole rights to King’s heirs of his intellectual works. The court’s ruling subsequently opened the way for the King family to successfully sue CBS and USA Today for unauthorized use of portions of Dr. King’s works.

So, rather than completely lay to rest the issue of where the King trust truly belongs, the ruling has created a maelstrom of controversy and anger from some scholars who suggest the King family, by its actions and without good cause, have suppressed King’s works for selfish gain and materialistic purposes.

In support of the Kings, writer James L. Swanson said in a January 1996 article in The Los Angeles Times, “The [King] family is not censoring history, it’s protecting its rights.” And, it stands by sound reason and good conscience that if anyone is to profit from the life’s work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it should be his widow and four children.

Nevertheless, while Swanson’s argument does substantiate the position of King’s heirs, it is unfortunate that such controversies about the King legacy even exist. What is even more unfortunate is that worldly fortune, gain and materialism are the central arguments that fuel the controversies over Dr. King’s works.

In a recent discussion with Martin Luther King III, he assured me that the public controversy about his family’s decision on his father’s works has been blown out of proportion and taken out of context. He stated that, “My family’s concern has to do with the use of my father’s image and likeness for commercial profit.” Further, he said, “The copyrighted works [of King] may still be used for purely academic and not-for-profit endeavors.”

The visit of Martin Luther King, III to West Palm Beach, Fla., ended with a brief visit to an after-school program in a poverty-stricken community. His visit to that center was reminiscent of exactly what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. might have done on such a visit to such an affluent city as West Palm Beach. The scene at his coming was one of sheer amazement and excitement on the part of the children who ranged in ages from 6 to 16. They reveled in the experience of actually seeing the son of the famous leader they know only through history and the annual celebration of his birthday. They gathered around King III excited to ask him any question that might clarify their understanding of the nation’s greatest oracle of civil and human rights.

With scraps of paper and bare palms outstretched and the offerings of the backs of well-worn T-shirts, these children who seemed to understand so well the sacrifice of their fallen leader clamored for the autograph of his oldest son.

This was a poignant reminder that while King the father has gone on, the true essence and substance of him is still alive and well with us. The spirit of his legacy will survive by the keepers of it, whomever these individuals may be. Dr. King’s legacy is deeply imbedded in all who understand the wealth of his life and the great personal sacrifice he offered to demand equality for all.

Through this common and spiritual understanding of the life and works of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., all the so-called restrictions people perceive placed on his intellectual works could never ever fully suppress or slightly silence this King.
Terriel R. Byrd, Ph.D., is assistant professor of religion and director of ethnic church ministries at Palm Beach Atlantic College, West Palm Beach, Fla.

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  • Terriel Byrd