Kings are in the counting house

Thirty years after the killing of Martin Luther King, his family are under fire for cashing in on the great man's legacy, reports John Carlin
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A COUPLE of troubling questions hovered, unspoken, in the air yesterday as Americans marched, prayed and sang in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King.

Have the wife and children of the patron saint of racial harmony, the voice of the poor and the downtrodden, shamefully forsaken the Dream? Have the Kings, black America's royal family, descended into madness?

On the surface the answer would appear to be yes on both counts. Glancing at the behaviour of Dr King's relatives, one could be forgiven for imagining that they had succumbed to two diseases more commonly associated with America's crazier white folks: money mania and conspiracy theoritis.

While Jesse Jackson and the rest of the martyr's political heirs continue in the eternal struggle for racial equality and understanding, his flesh and blood descendants seem more concerned with turning his memory to commercial profit, as if he were more Elvis Presley than America's very own Gandhi.

Dexter Scott King, the most energetic of Dr King's four children, has turned, indeed, to the management of Presley's Graceland estate for advice on how to make a killing from the rights to the great man's intellectual property. The upshot has been, in part, a multimedia joint venture between the King family and Time Warner, which is expected to generate millions of dollars worth of publications, TV documentary material and CD-ROMs constructed around Dr King's written and recorded words.

In a token of their sincere intention to ensure that Dr King's public speeches remain private property, the King family sued the newspaper USA Today in 1993 for publishing the celebrated "I Have a Dream" speech without prior consultation. In 1995 they sued CBS for including footage of the same speech in a five-part documentary series about the 20th century.

Having incurred the disgust of some of those who marched with Dr King in the 1960s civil rights movement - one black congressman has accused them of selling his legacy "like soap" - the King family have provoked the consternation of others with their seemingly bizarre allegations about the circumstances of the 1968 assassination.

James Earl Ray confessed to the killing after his arrest in London in 1969. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison, but three days later he recanted, claiming his lawyer had advised him that if he pleaded not guilty he ran the risk of getting the death penalty. He has maintained his innocence ever since.

Last year, Dexter Scott King met Ray, who is suffering from a terminal liver ailment, and emerged from the prison to declare that he believed him to be innocent. Dr King's widow, Coretta Scott King, concurs with her son in accepting the notion propounded by Ray's lawyer that the assassination was the consummation of a broad conspiracy involving the Mafia and the US government, with the knowledge and assent of the president, Lyndon B Johnson.

William Pepper, Ray's lawyer, has come up with what he claims to be documentary evidence supporting his client's contention that he was framed by the government. Mr Pepper says that Dr King was shot by a professional hit man paid by the Mafia, who were in cahoots with the FBI and US army intelligence.

Why? Because of Dr King's opposition to the Vietnam War; because in 1968 he was turning his attention away from racism to the economic injustice of America's capitalist system; and because, supposedly, the also martyred Robert Kennedy was contemplating naming Dr King his vice presidential running-mate in his bid for the White House.

As Dexter Scott King put it in an article last month: "My father was assassinated not because of the racism of one man, but because of his leadership ... to end the war in Vietnam ... to end poverty, and his possible role in the 1968 presidential election."

In an interview last year with ABC television, Mr King explained why he believed Lyndon Johnson had been involved in the plot. "I would think that it would be very difficult for something of that magnitude to occur on his watch and he not be privy to it," he said.

His mother, sharing his suspicions, has openly backed Ray's demand for a trial so that the truth might finally come out. Last week, with the backing of her four children, Coretta Scott King went a step further, asking the government to grant immunity to the purported conspirators.

"I am calling for the establishment of a national commission, similar in spirit to South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to investigate all of the evidence concerning the assassination," she told a news conference on Thursday. "This commission would provide immunity and protection for persons who come forward." Not surprisingly, the FBI have pooh-poohed the Kings' claims. A trial appears unlikely, as does an immunity-granting national commission.

Yet the conspiracy theory believed by the King family and Mr Pepper does not seem any more far-fetched than those concerning the assassination of John F Kennedy. J Edgar Hoover, the FBI chief, was notoriously obsessed with Dr King. The FBI worried that he was a closet communist, and they did wire-tap him and harass him continually for the last six years of his life. As for army intelligence, they must have been concerned at the impact America's most charismatic orator might have had on efforts to perpetuate an unpopular war in a far-flung land.

So perhaps the Kings are not quite as mad as all that in persisting with their conspiracy theory. Or, at any rate, no madder than the American population at large, for whom conspiracy theories amount to something of a national sport.

Much the same might be said about the Kings' moneymaking impulses. Recent reports that Dexter Scott King has made a deal with Oliver Stone to help him with a film about his father's last days might raise an eyebrow among sticklers for decorum and good taste. But here again the Kings are simply doing the natural all-American thing and, in the spirit of the unfettered free market, availing themselves of the material happiness duty demands they pursue in the land of opportunity.

Dr King said in his speech on the Washington Mall in 1963 that he had a dream that one day "little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers". His little black children have grown up and made that dream their own.

It might not be the dream, precisely, that their father had in mind. It is not necessarily the dream that the likes of Jesse Jackson are striving to keep alive. But it is a dream, none the less, an ideal that knows no racial boundaries. And it has a name: the American Dream.