Monumental Errors

Can the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Campaign Be Saved?

Seed money to get the project going came from the fraternity—according to tax filings, several hundred thousand dollars—and from General Motors (GM), which contributed $750,000, but it is unclear how the funds have been spent. An additional $10 million promise from GM—$5 million cash and $5 million in "cause-related" marketing—was also made, according to Paul Du Bois, a former executive director of the King project. Du Bois, who is now president of the American Slavery Memorial Museum, was with the memorial from November 2000 until March 2001, and was unable to secure a letter of confirmation from GM during his tenure. In 2001, during the project's intense licensing talks with the King Center and the King family, a larger donation was on hold, said GM spokesman Bill Noack.

During that time Tommy Hilfiger also verbally offered a mostly marketing donation—$4 million in marketing, and between $600, 000 and $1 million in cash. (It is now described on the Hilfiger Web site as cash and in-kind services.) Johnson told the Voice that Hilfiger and his CEO, Joel Horowitz, now sit on the foundation's Executive Leadership Council, along with Gary Cowger, president of General Motors North America, and Daniel Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins.

When asked the names of the foundation's big donors, Johnson named the only corporations the group has ever had on board: GM, Hilfiger, and BellSouth. Not much headway has been made with corporate America over the past seven years, which may not be purely the foundation's fault.

illustration: Mirko Ilic´

The "project team" still listed on the foundation Web site actually disbanded several years ago, but it includes nine men and one woman, most of whom are business people. Four of those are, however, still officers of the foundation.

Over the years, that team has also included at least one person from the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Social Change in Atlanta, which is run by the King family, but none appears on the most recent team list. In fact, Johnson says, the foundation only settled its years-long King licensing negotiations "about a month ago." An agreement was reached, he says, with Intellectual Properties Management (IPM), which handles King licensing, that "is favorable to IPM and the King family." He insists no fees were paid to the King family or the King Center. Asked about fees to IPM, Johnson reiterated only that they had "a deal" and that IPM was primarily worried that the memorial might sell memorabilia using King's name or image.

On the other hand, Robert Vickers, who is communications manager for both IPM and the King Center, told the Voice that negotiations are still ongoing between "IPM and the Alpha Phi Alpha Foundation" with some completion possible at a Friday meeting. The mention of an APA Foundation is indicative of the blurred lines in this project. The memorial foundation seems no more distinct from the Alphas than IPM does from the King Center and the King family.

To secure the King family's cooperation, the foundation went several years ago to Alpha brother and King family consultant Andrew Young. After much urging, Young set up the meeting and then was called away. According to Du Bois, the King family group had already asked for 50 percent of all money raised for the memorial to go to the King Center or for someone from the center to attend all meetings with potential corporate funders. The foundation would not agree. But, in the meeting, Johnson suddenly made an offer of $600,000 (to be paid at $50,000 a quarter for three years). As Du Bois remembers it, Dexter King responded by saying, "That's very generous of you, but my father was a spiritual man and he set aside the question of money, but if he were to take it—his spirit is speaking to me and he's saying it really should be $800,000." Then almost immediately King backed off, finding the $600,000 sufficient. According to Du Bois, when the fraternity board learned of Johnson's offer, it was rescinded. Johnson denies that he ever made such an offer; King couldn't be reached for comment.

As late as 2001, the foundation was still negotiating a licensing agreement with the King Center, and news reports at the time, quoting Johnson, asserted that the memorial's fundraising had already been hurt by word of King family demands. A center spokesperson said then that any fee the center received would help offset losses in its own fundraising due to the memorial's drive for funding. And, according to Du Bois, potential funders, including some corporations, were reluctant to give money to any group associated with the King Center, in part because of long-standing prior obligations to support the center.

This drama may help to account for the fact that the fraternity itself lowered its fundraising goals over time from a total of $10 million to $1 million, according to internal documents. In addition, nearly $200,000 in seed money provided by the fraternity as a gift, according to Du Bois, was designated by Johnson as a loan, which remains outstanding on the foundation's filings—now a tab running around $700,000. The fraternity also began a campaign to sell memorial "bricks" to raise money, but that drive seems never to have caught fire. For a group with only 17,500 members to raise that kind of money would have obligated each to make a fairly hefty donation.

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