Out of america:Luther King's dream becomes a nightmare

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The Independent Online
Washington - Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day. This year, though, it has been hard to concentrate on the deeds of the towering hero of modern America's struggle for racial equality, shot dead in that modern American annus horribilis of 1968. T rue, this most recent of public holidays has seen controversy before, mostly over the refusal of a few outposts of white supremacy to mark the occasion. But such disputes at least were relevant to the civil rights crusade.

Not so the demeaning dispute surrounding the 1995 celebrations. Who owns Martin Luther King, it might be summed up. Thus far, the only winner is the tiny minority that believes America would have been better off without him. The story revolves around a few rundown blocks in south-eastern Atlanta, containing the three-storey house where King was born in 1929, St Ebenezer's Church, where he prayed, and the crypt where he lies buried. In 1980 the district was declared a national historic area by Congress, and placed under the administration of the US National Park Service. Two years later, the King family set up its own Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Change at the site, to preserve and promote his legacy. Today all pretence at peaceful co-existence between the two bodies has vanished, submerged by the sheer popularity of the man they honour.

Last year 3 million people visited the King birthplace, making it the third most popular site operated by the National Park Service in the country, exceeded only by the Statue of Liberty and the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. By 1992, facilities were overwhelmed, while the Atlanta Olympics, promising hundreds of thousands more tourists, were only four years off. The Park Service came up with a $12m (£7.6m) scheme, which Congress again approved, containing an enlarged visitor centre, a memorial w alk, decent parking, and a new community centre and gym for the entire neighbourhood. At first the King family welcomed the project. Then things started to go wrong.

In retrospect, the first warning came a couple of years ago, when USA-Today was sued by the family after it published the text of the 1963 "I have a dream" speech. During his lifetime King placed his speeches and writings under copyright, and the newspaper had to pay a fee of $1,700, plus costs.

But surprise occasioned by that episode paled beside the astonishment in mid-1994, when King's son Dexter announced a $60m plan for the Martin Luther King Jr Time-Machine and Interactive Museum at the site. Orthodox liberal America was outraged: an Atla n ta paper pub lished a cartoon showing King's widow, Coretta, and Dexter dreaming dollar bills.

Who owns history ? The question is simply put. The answer alas - given King and the whole history of race in modern America - is fiendishly complicated. Dexter King maintains he is the victim of a smear campaign: the money the family's museum centre would raise would further the goals of the King Center. By asserting the government's claim to the site, he said recently, the Park Service was behaving as the white man had behaved towards the American Indian. Coretta Scott King has warned that "the same evil forces" which had killed her husband were trying to destroy his heirs and his legacy.

But, one may ask, can the family cope with the burden of that legacy? The reputation of Martin Luther King Jr has never stood higher. He would be horrified to see the condition of black America. Today's violence and despair serve merely to burnish the legend of the man. But, his descendants ask, for whose benefit? They challenge the assumption of a conscience-laden white America that it may be trusted to look after the monuments of a race it so long oppressed. The family described the Park Service as "poorly qualified to interpret the people's history. That responsibility should be left to the people who lived it."

And there matters stand. Public opinion, including many of King's comrades-in-arms and local residents sympathise with the National Park Service - not least because of the chaotic way the family has hitherto managed the King Center. Nor can the family realistically claim exclusive rights - Martin Luther King belongs to all Americans. This year, however, on the day above all others that it should be undefiled, his dream has become a small nightmare.