King Family in Dispute Over Atlanta Center

There is dispute at the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta. The board of directors has proposed selling several buildings that make up the center to the National Park Service. Members of Martin Luther King Jr.'s family are divided over the sale.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Today's Martin Luther King holiday comes in the midst of a dispute at the center that bears King's name. It's the King Center for Non-Violent Change in Atlanta, Georgia. The board of directors there has proposed selling several buildings that make up the center; they would go to the National Park Service. NPR's Kathy Lohr reports that proposal is splitting the King family.

KATHY LOHR reporting:

The Park Service already operates and manages much of the King historic sites, including a visitors center, but the buildings surrounding Dr. King's crypt that display some of this clothing and his personal writings still belong to the King family. They need a lot of work; about $12 million worth according to engineering audits. How the non-profit center will come up with the cash has been a key question over the past year. But recently, the board of directors decided to pursue a sale to the federal government. That option would allow the infusion of money the center needs, but it would also allow the government to manage it. Two of King's children are for the sale; the other two have publicly spoken out against it. Martin Luther King III says this is more than just a family squabble.

Mr. MARTIN LUTHER KING III: Bernice and I stand to differ with those who would sell out father's legacy and barter our mother's vision, whether it is for 30 pieces of silver or $30 million.

LOHR: At a recent news conference, Martin King and Bernice King said if the center is sold to the Park Service, it would be impossible for it to remain an independent voice in the civil rights movement.

Ms. BERNICE KING: Our father challenged our nation, especially in times where there was much violence. If the King Center is sold to the government, our nation will lose that important legacy, the important voice, of challenge, equality and independence.

LOHR: Since part of what visitors come to see is the eternal flame and the blue reflecting pool surrounding the tomb of Dr. King, Bernice King says she fears the worst if the Park Service does decide to buy the historic property.

Ms. KING: This sale will ultimately lead to the donation of the crypt, my father's remains, to the federal government. What an irony.

LOHR: A spokeswoman for the National Park Service had no comment on the plan. Coretta Scott King suffered a severe stroke last year. Over the weekend, Mrs. King appeared in public for the first time during an annual civil rights celebration, but did not speak. Airing the family's feelings in public led to an editorial in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in favor of the sale, but others feel the community should stay out of it and let the family make its own decision. Charles Steele is the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Mr. CHARLES STEELE (President, Southern Christian Leadership Conference): So you're going to have these little pockets of frustration, pockets of not understanding each other's agenda. But at some point, as a community and a civil rights community, we must come together and understand that the movement is bigger than any individual.

LOHR: Steele says the historic significance of the King Center will not be lost no matter who owns the buildings. But some suggest all the focus on the external has taken away from Dr. King's vision. Robert Brown teaches African-American Politics at Emory Univeristy.

Mr. ROBERT BROWN (Emory University): There's been more concern with regard to the King Center as a place, as a physical place, and less of a kind of focus and attention to bringing about change with regard to Martin Luther King's ideals. For Martin Luther King, his focus would be on the actions that would be undertaken with regard to trying to address the fundamental problems that still affect black Americans and all Americans, all Americans who are economically disadvantaged.

LOHR: At this weekend's events to honor Dr. King, his nephew, Isaac Ferris Jr., acknowledged the family split over the sale of the King Center. He said, while the buildings are for sale, the values and principles of the center will never be sold. Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.

INSKEEP: On this Martin Luther King Day, you can go to npr.org and find comments as well as excerpts from the writing of historian Taylor Branch, who just finished his trilogy about King. You can also listen to a holiday concert there.

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