The Shameful Exploitation of Dr. King

by Jonathan Wallace

In good years, I contribute some money to charity at year's end. Once I wrote a check for $250 to the Martin Luther King Center. I ended up regretting it.

As it happens, I visited the King Center in December 1994, just as I was writing the essays for the first issue of The Ethical Spectacle. I was astonished to find that there was almost nothing there; the extensive museum I expected did not exist. There was a beautiful and expensive building, which seemed to house only a few photographs and a giftshop. Perhaps most of the organization's energy was focused in its workshops on nonviolence?

Several years later I sponsored a group of young people in the creation of a Martin Luther King web page, and we made the unfortunate discovery that we could not reproduce any of his speeches on the site without paying a rather substantial amount of money to his estate. The kids ended up posting the following on the site:

Most of the Doctor's writings are the property of his estate. To receive legal permission to reproduce any of his works it is necessary to contact:

Intellectual Properties Management
1579 F Monroe Drive, Suite 235
Atlanta, GA 30324
Tel: 404-814-0080

We are in the process of trying to raise the money or convince the man to post some of Dr. King's works here. In the meantime, check our links page for a few speeches that are available elsewhere.

But the pages that they linked to, for the "I have a dream" speech and the "Letter from the Birmingham Jail", are no longer up. The estate embarked on an aggressive campaign, including litigation, to eliminate uses of Dr. King's work anywhere unless license fees were paid, effectively treating his speeches as commercial literary works, and Dr. King's name itself as a brand, reserved to the family to exploit. Family members were driving expensive cars, while the workshops on nonviolence had been discontinued. I now understood that sending my $250 to the King Center was tantamount to mailing it to Coca Cola. The only difference was that the King family had accepted my contribution with a grateful letter, and Coke probably would have sent it back.

The last step in the shameful commercialization of Dr. King came a few weeks ago, when Alcatel ran an advertisement for its telecommunications services using a clip from the "I Have a Dream" speech. The family by permitting this advertising use has taken the last step in converting their husband and father into a brand. Their tight control and exploitation of his name to make money has the inevitable side effect that his words, which I believe Dr. King would have wanted to disseminate world-wide, for free, are now available to paying users only. The King family has betrayed the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.