King memorial rekindles imaging debate
During recent coverage of the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial, a television host urged viewers to stay tuned for a treat: the slain civil rights leader’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech in its entirety.
Before the group behind the memorial could replay the speech, it had to first secure the rights from the King Center.
The King estate guards his likeness, words and name closely, a tactic the King family says is necessary to protect King’s legacy. But some question whether that control is too tight. Or appropriate.
That permission is needed to use the full-length “I Have a Dream” speech is, for some, troubling.
“I think to some extent, the effort to control smothers the message,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch, who has written extensively about King and the civil rights movement. “He belongs to the ages.”
Most think of King as history’s property, an American icon who personifies the nation’s highest ideals of justice and peace. Legally, though, his image belongs to his children, who seldom speak publicly about the decisions regarding King’s image. That has perhaps fueled some of the second guessing about control over King’s image, an old debate rekindled around this month’s memorial dedication.
Critics point to King’s image being used in commercials and a 2007 payment — $761,160 — from the foundation overseeing the construction of King’s monument to the company that handles the licensing of King’s image as proof decisions are made with finances in mind.
But former Atlanta Mayor Andy Young, a King confidant and close friend to the family, says the exchange is a business reality.
“They built a memorial to him, which is wonderful, but to build a whole marketing campaign around it wasn’t legal,” Young said. “It was the family’s responsibility to protect his legacy.”
Others say King, a private citizen whose historical stature rivals that of U.S. presidents, is unique.
“From all my looking around, I can’t find anything similar to this at all,” said David Barna, a spokesman for the National Parks Service, who stressed that he was not criticizing the deal. “We have lots of monuments and memorials all over the country. But rarely do you have these monuments established in contemporary times where people knew or were directly related to the individuals.”
Members of the King family and the foundation either declined to comment specifically on the licensing fee or could not be reached for comment.
“I think the King family has seen their father’s words commercialized and in this day of intellectual property, they quite honestly feel they should have some say and control over how those words and images are used,” aide Joe Madison, a host on SiriusXM, who was a co-host for TV One for the dedication. “It’s an ongoing argument.”
Philippa Loengard, assistant director of the Kernochan Center for Law, Media and the Arts at Columbia University, said while she understands why the family might guard how King’s image is used, “they are probably one of the most careful, concerned and on-top-of-image protectors I’ve ever met. They are very aggressive.”
The King estate, for example, sued CBS television over the sale of a video documentary of the “I Have a Dream” speech, and eventually the parties settled out of court for an undisclosed amount. An appeals court ruled the speech was covered by copyright law and not part the public domain.
And recently , the King estate sued Jackson, Miss., television anchor Howard Ballou to get some of King’s photographs, transcripts and other material. Ballou’s mother, Maude Ballou, worked for King when he was head of the Montgomery Improvement Association and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The suit contends that Maude Ballou, as an employee of both organizations “had access to many documents, photographs and other personal effects that belong to Dr. King,” according to The (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion Ledger.
“The family has almost no option,” said Chuck Grimes, managing partner of Grimes & Battersby, an intellectual property firm that represents the likes of Jessica Simpson.