A few words to define Martin Luther King.
Leader of the civil rights movement, sometimes called the second American revolution. Man whose commitment to nonviolent resistance transformed a nation and inspired a world. Member of that top tier of American heroes that includes Jefferson and Lincoln.
If you're wondering why I would think you needed a refresher course on the greatness of King, well ... that wasn't for you. It was for his family. One gets the impression that they forget sometimes. Or worse, that for them he has become Martin Luther Ka-CHING! their property, product and all-around cash cow.
It's an impression that has, unfortunately, been confirmed more than once over the years. There was the time the family sued USA Today for reprinting King's "I Have A Dream" speech, settling out of court for a cash payment. And the time they allowed that speech and King's image to be used to hawk Alcatel, a communications company. And this other time when they let Cingular, the cell phone company, use him in an ad that also featured Kermit the Frog.
But have you heard the latest? According to published reports, the effort to build a monument to King on the Mall in Washington has reached an impasse over you guessed it the family's demand that a fee be paid for the use of King's image and words. I asked Harry Johnson, president of the King National Memorial Project Foundation Inc., about it, and he told me rather diplomatically, I thought that "impasse" is the wrong word. Negotiations are ongoing and the project is proceeding, he said. But he confirmed the request for a fee.
The Atlanta-based Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change has issued a statement denying that the King family has requested anything, noting that it's the center itself that is negotiating the "permissions agreement." Given that the center was founded by King's widow and is run by his youngest son, that seems a distinction without a difference.
When I asked if this "permissions agreement" involved a payment for the use of King's likeness and words, a spokesperson professed not to know and promised to get back to me. At this writing, a day and a follow-up phone call later, I'm still waiting. It's worth noting, though, that even the written statement seems to anticipate payment of some sort, noting that "any funds" the center receives will be used to further its mission of educating the world about King.
That's a lofty-sounding promise that does little to erase the growing sense that the man's heirs would, if they could, levy a usage fee against every fourth-grader who recites "I Have a Dream" for the school pageant.
Granted, they have a legal right to do so. Martin Luther King held no public office. He was a private citizen. And as such, his family is entitled to control and profit from his writings, his speeches and his likeness. But the standard that ought to apply here has little to do with what is legally permissible. Rather it has to do with what is right.
And measured against that standard, the guardians of King's legacy have persistently come up short.
When you sue USA Today for what some would call a public service, when you allow King to be used as a shill for phone companies, when you hold up a monument on the mall saying in essence, "Show me the money!" you send the unavoidable message that the money has assumed an unfortunate primacy. As a result, King's guardians look grasping, greedy, tacky, short-sighted and, worst of all, unworthy of a man for whom wealth was neither alpha nor omega.
"I won't have any money to leave behind," he roared, two months to the day before he was killed. "I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind."
He did that.
And we are all heirs to that life, all ennobled and enlarged by its achievements, its vision, its sacrifice. It belongs to all of us.
And guess what? You can't sell me what I already own.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.