MLK – the perils of Intestacy

The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Baptist minister, activist, humanitarian, and leader in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Best known for advocating nonviolent civil disobedience based on his Christian beliefs to promote Civil Rights he was assassinated in Memphis on April 4 1968 at the age of 39. Dr. King died without a will.

Dr. King’s heirs formed the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr. Inc., a for profit corporation to allow his family to control his estate. Dr. King’s heirs are widely perceived as aggressive enforcers and exploiters of his intellectual property rights. In the film Selma, about the march Dr King led in 1965 in support of voting rights for African Americans, the speeches performed by actor David Oyelowo in the film do not contain his actual words as the estate would not license the copyright in the speeches to the filmmaker.

Reportedly the King estate licensed the film rights to Dr King’s speeches to Steven Spielberg with provisions giving the estate control over how he is portrayed.

Famously the Estate sued CBS in 1988 after it aired over half of the “I have a dream speech” during a Mike Wallace documentary. CBS argued and the Court accepted that Dr. King’s public delivery of the speech, coupled with its subsequent “wide and unlimited reproduction and dissemination,” meant the work was in the public domain. However on appeal this decision was reversed as public delivery of a speech, no matter how widespread, does not allow the general public to make copies of it “willy-nilly”.

The Estate takes a strong exception to unauthorized commercial exploitations of Dr. King. A company selling plastics busts of Dr. King used advertising copy that included substantial excerpts from Dr. King’s speeches, and implied an affiliation with one of his wife Coretta’s organisations. This case recognised a post-mortem “right of publicity” in Georgia

Following the death of Dr. King’s Wife Coretta in 2006, and his oldest daughter Yolanda in 2007, relations among the remaining siblings began to deteriorate.

Dr. King’s son Dexter currently oversees the estate.  Dexter and his siblings have brought a number of lawsuits against each other over the handling of the estate, citing the withholding of information, mismanagement and misappropriation of assets.

The Estate is in dispute with the Martin Luther King Jr. Centre for Nonviolent Social Change a non-profit institution founded by Dr. King’s widow over 45 years ago to educate and promote his Legacy. Ongoing litigation with the estate has placed a financial burden on the Centre.

Dexter’s sister Bernice, is the head of the King Centre that has displayed Dr. King’s traveling Bible and Nobel Peace Prize medal. Dexter, wants to sell the Bible and medal to a private buyer, and claims that by refusing to surrender the Bible and Nobel medal; Bernice is violating a 1995 agreement amongst the heirs that assigned title and all rights and interests in Dr. King’s property to the estate. Bernice disputes the validity of this agreement, claiming (among other things) that she inherited the Bible and Medal from her late Mother, and believes that they should never be sold because they are sacred to her Father’s memory.

A court ordered that the items be placed in a safe deposit box with the keys controlled by the court, later ruling that the Bible belonged to the estate. Upon dismissal of the law suit the keys to the safe deposit box the Bible, Nobel medal and its accompanying certificate and box were to be given to Martin King.

The Estate has been highly litigious in protecting the physical and intellectual property of the estate. Including Dr. King’s name and likeness, recordings of his sermons and other memorabilia including the copyright status of the “I have a dream” speech.

The Estate is also sued for the possession of historic documents relating to King, including handwritten letters from King, transcripts of his speeches, and his writings concerning the 1950′s civil rights movement.

This case involves the ownership of documents given to Howard Ballou’s mother Maude when she worked for Dr. King. Maude has given evidence that she believes the documents were gifts to her and remained the personal belongings of her family ever since.  Unfortunately it is not known whether Dr. King wanted her to hold onto them as an employee, or keep them as gifts.  As Dr. King never made a Will no one really knows his intention.

If Dr. King had left a Will his family would have known his intentions regarding his papers and possessions. It could have stopped many of these expensive lawsuits, and the bitter disputes among his children.  A Will as part of a plan for the future allows your intentions to be known and alleviates further stress at an already stressful time.

Martin Luther King

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