It is clear that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s children never really knew their father.
Perhaps it is because they were so young when an assassin’s bullet took him away. How could we forget the iconic picture of little Bernice at the funeral, with her pigtails and white petticoat dress, and her head resting on her mother’s lap?
She was 5 years old. Her sister, Yolanda, was 12, Dexter was 7 and Martin III, 10.
On that day in 1968, the nation mourned the death of a legend who always had seemed larger than life. But our grief could never come close to that of the children he left behind.
King gave so much of himself to us that most African-Americans feel as though he was ours. But his children have guarded his legacy as if it only belonged to them.
It is hard to imagine an African-American museum that does not pay homage to King. And while the Smithsonian’s long-awaited National Museum of African-American History and Culture will feature a program from his funeral, photos of the civil rights leader, newspaper clippings and commemorative buttons bearing his name, there is nothing of substance that belonged to King.
The two most notable possessions — his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize medal and the Bible he carried with him everywhere — will remain locked up in a vault in Atlanta. His children refused to let them go.
Over the years, we have watched the family discord unfold in the courts, almost always over money and wealth — the two things that King valued the least.
No one, especially African-Americans, dared to criticize them publicly, for these were the children of a martyr. We forgave them for their selfish behavior because, in many ways, they had sacrificed as much as he did.
So we merely held our heads down in dismay when they turned on actor Harry Belafonte, a dedicated supporter of the civil rights movement and close family friend who used his celebrity to raise funds to keep the movement going. In her autobiography, Coretta Scott King wrote about Belafonte’s place in the movement: “Whenever we got into trouble or when tragedy struck, Harry has always come to our aid, his generous heart wide open.”
King depended on Belafonte to break through financial barriers that he could not. While King was jailed in Birmingham, Ala., Belafonte raised $50,000 to keep the campaign going in a city that had become the trademark for segregation and bigotry.
In 2008, when Belafonte decided to auction items that King or his wife, Coretta, had given him, the siblings halted the auction by, in effect, claiming that he had stolen them.
They later went after Andrew Young, a longtime family friend who had worked side by side with King in the movement and was with him in Memphis, Tenn., the day he was killed. Again and again, they also turned on each other.
The most recent dispute was over the Bible and the Nobel medal. Dexter and Martin wanted to sell them to the highest bidder. Bernice called the items “sacred.” The case ended up in court and before it was all over the brothers prevailed, clearing the way for a possible sale.
An article in The Washington Post recently laid out how a curator for the African-American museum had traveled to Atlanta to meet with the siblings, in hopes of reaching a deal to display the artifacts in the nation’s first museum honoring the contributions of blacks. It isn’t clear exactly what happened, but he went back to Washington empty-handed.
No one would be surprised if there had been a demand for money. The siblings were paid $800,000 to allow their father’s image to be carved on the King Memorial in Washington. They got $32 million after then-Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin obtained a loan so the city could buy King’s personal papers that were about to be auctioned off at Sotheby’s.
It was a lot easier to empathize with the siblings before that multimillion dollar payoff in 2006. Unlike Caroline and John Kennedy, who also lost their father at a young age, King’s children had no trust funds or family wealth to fall back on.
King died, for the most part, a pauper without a will. It’s not that he didn’t make money during his lifetime — he wrote five books, was a highly sought-after speaker and took home the $54,600 that went along with the Nobel Peace Prize. But rather than putting money away for his family, he donated everything he had to the movement.
It was Belafonte, in fact, who helped pay for the children’s education and other necessities after King’s death.
The absence of a will perhaps has been the greatest detriment to King’s legacy. Without a written testament as to how his intellectual properties would be managed, his children have had to figure it out for themselves.
Coretta Scott King’s death in 2006 and the death of the oldest child, Yolanda, the following year, gave way to more bitter disagreements between the surviving siblings.
But even without a will, it is obvious what King would have wanted. He would insist that the world share in the bounty from his teachings, his sacrifices and his unbridled commitment to achieving racial and economic parity. He spent his life telling us so.
And if there is doubt even after that, all Martin III, Dexter and Bernice have to do is listen to the words their father spoke in 1963 while standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom:
“I have a dream,” he said, “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Dahleen Glanton is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Readers may email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.