"I won't have any money to leave behind. I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind." -- Martin Luther King Jr., Feb. 4, 1968
Maybe we should take up an offering.
Obviously, the heirs of Martin Luther King Jr. are hard up for money. That must be why they keep selling off pieces of his legacy.
Have you heard the latest? King's youngest child, Bernice, issued a statement last week after her brothers, Dexter and Martin III, filed suit to force her to turn over their father's Nobel Peace Prize and his traveling Bible. She says they want to sell them to a private owner.
According to the suit, King's heirs agreed in 1995 to turn their inheritance over to a corporate entity, The Estate of Martin Luther King Jr. Inc., where Martin is chairman of the board. The complaint says Bernice has "repeatedly acknowledged and conceded the validity" of the agreement, but still refuses to surrender the items. The suit makes no mention of a sale. I called the King brothers' lawyer for comment. He didn't return the call.
In her statement, Bernice writes, "While I love my brothers dearly, this latest decision by them is extremely troubling." She says she is "appalled," "ashamed" and "disappointed" by their behavior. "It reveals a desperation beyond comprehension." Their father, she adds, "MUST be turning in his grave."
Turning? Martin Luther King must be spinning like a record album.
Not just because of this, but because over the years his family has missed no opportunity to pimp his legacy. That verb is used advisedly. I am mindful of its racial freight, but frankly, no other word adequately describes the behavior of this family with regard to its most celebrated member. Every year, they remind us to respect his legacy, but it seems increasingly apparent they don't respect -- or even fully understand it -- themselves.
If they did, they could not have licensed his image for a commercial with Homer Simpson. Or put his personal papers on sale for $20 million. Or demanded money to allow his likeness to grace a memorial on the Washington Mall.
What would King think of them fighting Harry Belafonte for the return of papers King gave him as a gift -- especially since Belafonte helped finance King's movement and the upbringing of these selfsame kids?
What would King think of the fact that these bickering, tiresome children of his are forever in litigation and public squabbles with one another and that money always seems to be at the root? Especially since he famously disdained "shallow things" like personal gain?
So yes, let's pass the hat. How much do you think it would take to induce these people to grow up, shut up, and stop using their daddy like an ATM?
I admit to being selective in my vexation. If Woodrow Wilson's heirs sold his Nobel Prize, or Booker T. Washington's his Bible, I doubt I would even notice.
The difference, I think, is that King is nearer to us in time and of a magnitude of greatness those men, great though they were, do not approach. He resides on a pantheon of American heroes occupied by the Founders, Abraham Lincoln and no one else. Moreover with him there is, especially for African-Americans but really for all believers in human dignity, a sense of communal ownership and collective investment -- a sense that he is ours and his memory, sacred. His children are the caretakers of that memory on behalf of us all. To trade on it for the love of money is starkly appalling and profoundly offensive.
The fact that they either don't understand this or don't care speaks volumes. King's kids may be legally entitled to sell his legacy to the highest bidder. But that a thing is legal to do does not make it right to do.
Considering who their father was, you'd think that's something they'd know.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a syndicatrd columnist.