RICHARDSON: To destroy a legacy

February 9, 2014 

Every time I figure we’ve reached our capacity for being stupid, I’m proven wrong. I expect the Justin Biebers of the world to continue their cheap parlor tricks as they seek the ever-more intense spotlight. That’s part of entertainment in this day and age. Do something stupid, and your stupid story ends up being the topic of conversation on many newscasts. That says a lot more about us than about them.

But you would expect an iconic family such as the Kings -- as in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. -- to have purged all the stupidity from their systems. God knows they’ve had plenty of opportunities. Dexter Scott King has been sued by his brother Martin Luther King III and his sister Bernice King over the estate of their father. Dexter has sued Bernice over their mother’s papers. Old Dex wanted to sell them for $1.4 million in a book deal. They extorted a privately financed loan of $32 million from the city of Atlanta when they threatened to offer some of their father’s papers for auction in 2006. Those items ended up in the care of King’s alma mater, Morehouse College.

Harry Belafonte, a King confidant, had some papers of King as well. He put those papers up for auction but withdrew the items the day before the auction was to take place. Even King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech is copyrighted, and to use it a fee must to be paid to the family. They have gone to court to protect their intellectual property rights. Last year, the King family even sued Maude Ballou, their father’s 88-year-old former secretary, to keep her from selling papers their father had given her. She won the case, and the papers brought in about $130,000 for a scholarship fund at Alabama State University.

All of that is well and good. They have a right to protect their father’s legacy. But now, according to a release from Bernice, her brothers asked her to turn over their father’s personal Bible, the same one President Barack Obama used to take his oath of office, and his Nobel Peace Prize medal. They made the request -- no, demand -- on Jan. 20, the same day as the King holiday.

Do they want to gift it to his alma mater or another nonprofit organization? Nope, they want to sell them to a private buyer. I’m sorry, but that’s just not right.

Bernice has refused to turn over the items, and her brothers have -- guess what -- filed a lawsuit.

“I am appalled and utterly ashamed,” she wrote. “I am frankly disappointed that they would even entertain the thought of selling these precious items.”

Bernice, we are, too.

The King family was as close as it gets to royalty in the black community, at least as long as Coretta Scott King lived. But now it seems the only sibling concerned with what she called their “priceless inheritance” is Bernice. She bears the social mind of her father and his gift of oratory.

Frankly, the brothers have never taken up the burden of their father’s cross except in ceremonial functions. Bernice, on the other hand, has earned her juris doctorate from Emory University and a Master of Divinity from the Candler School of Theology. Dexter attended Morehouse but did not graduate and went into acting on the West Coast. Martin III did graduate from Morehouse and went on to be a Fulton County commissioner but was beaten in 1993 when it was revealed he owed $200,000 in back taxes and fines.

It’s not every family that can say some of their heirlooms include a Nobel Peace Prize medal or papers that will be studied by historians for decades. No one alive, with the exception of Caroline Kennedy, can say a national holiday is named for their father. It is a legacy all should try to protect. To cite a scripture Bernice used in her announcement of this horrid affair, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul.”-- Mark 8:36

A legacy is a terrible thing to waste.

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Charles E. Richardson is The Telegraph’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at 478-744-4342 or via email at Tweet @crichard1020.

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