King family draws fees from DC memorial project

By | April 21, 2009

The family of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has charged the foundation building a monument to the civil rights leader on the National Mall about $800,000 for the use of his words and image — an arrangement one leading scholar says King would have found offensive.

The memorial — including a 28-foot sculpture depicting King emerging from a chunk of granite — is being paid for almost entirely with private money in a fundraising campaign led by the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation. The monument will be turned over to the National Park Service once it is complete.

The foundation has been paying the King family for the use of his words and image in its fundraising materials. The family has not charged for the use of King’s likeness in the monument itself.

“I don’t think the Jefferson family, the Lincoln family … I don’t think any other group of family ancestors has been paid a licensing fee for a memorial in Washington,” said Cambridge University historian David Garrow, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of King. “One would think any family would be so thrilled to have their forefather celebrated and memorialized in D.C. that it would never dawn on them to ask for a penny.”

King would have been “absolutely scandalized by the profiteering behavior of his children,” Garrow said.

According to financial documents reviewed by The Associated Press, the foundation paid $761,160 in 2007 to Intellectual Properties Management Inc., an entity run by King’s family. Documents also show a “management” fee of $71,700 was paid to the family estate in 2003.

In a statement to the AP, Intellectual Properties Management said the proceeds it receives go to the King Center in Atlanta, where King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, are entombed. The statement said the arrangement was made out of concern that fundraising for the monument would undercut donations to the King Center.

“Many individuals believe all `King’ fundraising initiatives are interrelated and don’t donate to the King Center, thinking they have already supported it by donating to the memorial,” the statement said.

King’s son Dexter serves as the center’s chairman, and his cousin Isaac Farris Jr. is president and chief executive officer. King’s two other surviving children, Martin Luther King III and Bernice King, are lifetime members of the board of directors.

A review of the King’s Center financial documents shows that public support for the nonprofit organization did decline each year from 2004 to 2006, while fundraising for the Washington memorial was under way. More recent tax returns were not available.

The monument will be on the banks of the Tidal Basin, between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, and would be the first major tribute to the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize winner outside Atlanta.

For years, King’s family has fiercely protected his legacy, suing for a share of the proceeds from the use of his words and images in merchandise and publications. In the 1990s, the family reached settlements with USA Today and CBS over their use of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech without permission. A federal appeals court ruled in 1999 during the CBS case that the speech was not in the public domain.

But historians and the National Park Service said they are not aware of any other case in which builders of a national monument had to license the image of their subject.

National Park Service spokesman Bill Line said licensing fees are “unfamiliar territory” for a memorial that will eventually be turned over to the government. The Park Service was unaware of the fees but plans to discuss their potential implications, he said.

Harry Johnson, president of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, said that the fees were not a burden and that the foundation has a good relationship with the King family.

“We just want to build the memorial,” said Johnson, a Houston lawyer. “The memorial we are building will be the people’s memorial and will belong to the people of the United States.”

The foundation hopes to begin building the $120 million memorial this year. It has raised $104 million of that so far, including $10 million from Congress. It has tapped charitable foundations, Fortune 500 companies and individuals, sending letters to more than 1 million potential donors.

The intellectual property issue first surfaced in 2001, when the King family’s efforts to seek a licensing agreement briefly stalled fundraising.

Johnson said the memorial’s central sculpture does not fall within the family’s intellectual property rights, and nearly all the King quotations being incorporated into the design are in the public domain, which means no licensing fees need to be paid.

The foundation did not pay any fees to the King family in 2008, but it could face more licensing fees in the future if it uses certain words or images in its activities, Johnson said.

Rebecca Rimel, president and CEO of the Pew Charitable Trusts, which gave $1 million to the project in 2007, said the group was not aware of the licensing arrangement but is now asking that its gift be used only to support the memorial’s construction.

“We think the memorial is an important and overdue recognition, but we really don’t want to get involved with relationships with the family and their estate,” Rimel said.

Charon Darris, a New York banker and alumnus of Morehouse College, King’s alma mater, said he raised about $1,000 for the memorial project with friends and did not have a problem with the fees.

“I don’t think that’s an unreasonable amount,” he said. “Ultimately, the kids lost their father, the wife lost her husband.”

BRETT ZONGKER, AP