MAXWELL: The sound, fury of hypocrites
11/19/2006 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

Last Monday’s groundbreaking ceremony for a memorial on the National Mall for the slain civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., featured all the usual suspects doing what they do best: grandstanding and spouting piety and self-righteousness.
You saw them and, of course, you heard some of them – Bernice King, the reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, congressman John Lewis, TV host Oprah Winfrey, poet Maya Angelou and former President Bill Clinton. No friends of black Americans, President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice attended. Bush spoke and received polite but restrained applause from the overwhelmingly black crowd.
The event was a predictable spectacle, complete with shovels.
Bernice King, Dr. King’s youngest daughter, mostly yelled and chastised her listeners, which was broadcast worldwide. At one point, she said: “Our father just wanted to be a great pastor. Little did he know, he became a great pastor to a nation.”
Sen. Barack Obama said: “He never did live to see the promised land from that mountaintop, but he pointed the way for us.”
As Young spoke, he became so emotional that he apparently lost control. Jackson, within arm’s reach of Young and in full view of cameras, also broke down and embraced the weeping Young. Other blacks in the crowd either cried or appeared ready to cry at any moment.
I could not take any of it seriously. Here is why. With the exception of Young and a few others in the crowd of thousands, hardly anyone stepped up when King’s 7,000 personal documents, manuscripts and other memorabilia were on Sotheby’s auction block just last month. King’s children demanded a whopping $32-million for the collection.
To her eternal credit, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin hit the bricks with her tin cup and found mostly white corporate donors to purchase the papers so that they could be housed permanently in Atlanta, King’s birthplace. Young was instrumental in helping to raise the money.
Why did Franklin have to go begging to white people? Because wealthy blacks and those with the clout to woo wealthy blacks sat on their stingy hands and lamented from the “amen corner.” Where were their checkbooks and pledges? Where were the fundraisers in the black churches? Where were the gospelfests and walkathons?
Our lack of enthusiastic, collective participation in saving the papers is shameful.
Then we have the King family itself. The children put up so many obstacles and restrictions on access to and use of the papers, even after they have been sold, that even many white donors were initially scared off.
With few blacks complaining, the King brood – Bernice, Dexter, Martin III and Yolanda – has mismanaged the operations of the King Center in Atlanta for a decade. The exhibits, the building and the grounds are poorly maintained. The roof even leaks.
Few blacks, including many at the groundbreaking on the National Mall, have publicly complained about the way the King children have misrepresented their father’s legacy by putting personal gain ahead of the historical and intellectual value and efficacy of the papers.
I agree with Taylor Branch, King’s major biographer. He wrote that we should not “begrudge the four offspring of King their private fortunes from the reported $32-million sale. He wanted very much to provide for his family in life and would surely be pleased that he has been able to do so now.”
About the children’s crass profiteering, however, Branch offers an example of how the father was different from his children. “King stopped bootleggers from selling the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech for one explicit purpose: to safeguard proceeds for the movement. He died a relatively poor man because he devoted to the cause nearly all lifetime earnings above a modest preacher’s salary, including his entire purse from the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. … King donated his papers (to his alma mater, Boston University) without charge.”
Given the lack of support from blacks in general and wealthy blacks in particular to buy and preserve the King papers, I see the maudlin performance in Washington as an insult to the memory of the first black person to have a place of honor on the National Mall.