What Becomes a Legend Most?

Selling King's Papers; Reclaiming Malcolm X's

Fueling some of the animosity toward the King family is a history of nasty encounters over copyright uses (especially with broadcasters), a reputed stinginess with scholarly access to the papers, and high licensing fees. And critics probably assume they're making a lot from a 1997 deal with AOL Time Warner, in which the Kings licensed use of the same repository to Warner Books for an undisclosed advance (rumored to be between $2 million and $3 million) on seven King-related projects, including CD-ROMs, speech recordings, Web sites, and books. Most of these projects have yet to be completed.

The Kings are famous for asserting that they are trying to protect the King image from demeaning usage and are raising money for the nonprofit King Center for Non-Violent Social Change, which they still run and, tellingly, is now called simply the King Center. And Coretta King has said that she received only a $50,000 life insurance benefit at her husband's death and that most of her own income is from public speaking. When Coretta opened the center in 1968, almost any activist in America would have been happy to help train would-be activists. The realization of this mission could have had a profound effect on local and national struggles around the country. But the center's track record is dismal. Many think it is simply being used as a tourism cash cow that has trodden on the surrounding poor black community.

Finally, there was a saddening episode last year over a federal plan to build a $100 million national memorial honoring King between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials. General Motors had already donated $750,000 when negotiations with the Kings stalled over a "permissions agreement" that might have involved a fee to the heirs. So there is a real question as to whether another attempt to sell the papers by auction will work and, more importantly, whether King's vision—his true legacy—will get a much needed rebirth.

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