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Published: Tuesday, 11/27/2001

How much does a dream cost?

The family of Martin Luther King, Jr., has closely guarded the image of the civil rights leader since his assassination in Memphis in 1968. That's probably just as well, considering the tawdry commercialization of everything from the President's Day holiday to this year's terrorist attacks.

But the King family has carried its protective efforts too far, stalling fund-raising for a public monument to Dr. King in Washington over a fee being demanded for use of his picture and words in a marketing campaign.

Unauthorized trading cards or T-shirts would be one thing, but this is a public memorial we're talking about here.

Donations for the memorial, authorized by Congress in 1998, reportedly are being held up because the King National Memorial Project Foundation has been unable to settle the issue. The memorial, costing about $100 million, would be built on the national Mall in the same general area as the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials.

Given that the family previously has granted licenses for Dr. King's voice and image in television commercials, we have to assume the issue is more about money than anything. And it is.

The managing director of the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, run by the King family, says the family wants to control the way Dr. King's image would be used in fund-raising appeals. But she acknowledges that the fee, the amount of which hasn't been disclosed, would help offset any downturn in donations to the center caused by the effort to build the memorial.

That's pretty tacky, not to mention a fine example of looking a gift horse in the mouth. And it isn't the first time the King family has been accused of unseemly profiteering disguised as protecting the legacy of a historic personage. The television commercials are but one example.

In 1993, the family successfully sued USA Today for reprinting Dr. King's legendary “I have a dream” speech to mark the 30th anniversary of the 1963 civil rights march on Washington. In 1998, they sued CBS for copyright infringement for use of a recording of the speech in a documentary. In that case, a federal judge had the good sense to rule that the speech, given before 200,000 people, was in the public domain, especially since Dr. King had not filed for copyright protection until a month after the speech.

In 1999, the family agreed to sell Dr. King's private papers to the Library of Congress for $20 million and a $10 million tax deduction, after first demanding $30 million. Though that deal has stalled, it is useful to note that the most the library had previously paid for a collection was $1.5 million, and that one included one of three surviving copies of the Gutenberg Bible.

Were he alive today, Dr. King undoubtedly would disapprove of the money-hustling being perpetrated in his name. Public appreciation of his greatness and martyrdom to the cause of civil rights doesn't depend upon construction of a monument in Washington, but his family's unfortunate insistence on licensing fees shouldn't hold it up either.



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