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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

By Jim Galloway and Ernie Suggs, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

ATLANTA — The family of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has served notice to Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal that it wants input into any monument to the slain civil rights leader erected on state Capitol grounds — if the state expects free use of King’s copyrighted likeness.

On MLK Day in January, before an Ebenezer Baptist Church congregation, Deal promised to work with the Legislature to give King a more prominent place on Capitol grounds. A bill to that effect passed the House Monday; it must still pass the Senate.

It is a rare and politically delicate piece of bipartisan legislation, carrying the signatures of House Majority Leader Larry O’Neal, a Bonaire Republican, and state Rep. Joe Wilkinson, a Sandy Springs Republican, as well as two Democrats: Rep. Calvin Smyre of Columbus and Tyrone Brooks of Atlanta.

If the King letter does not imperil the bill, it could cool Republican enthusiasm for the measure.

Smyre, one of the longest-serving lawmakers in the Legislature, said he was surprised by its timing — it was written the same day the House approved the bill. He said he looked forward to briefing its author on the ways of the Capitol.

“My job is shepherding this bill through the legislative process,” Smyre said. “Thereafter, the right people will be assembled and the right meeting will be held.”

News of the letter surfaced on the same day King’s only surviving daughter, Bernice King, repeated pleas to her two brothers not to sell a Bible he carried and his Nobel Peace Prize medal.

The two-page letter from the corporation that oversees the King estate went to Chris Riley, the governor’s chief of staff. It reminded remind Deal that the King estate owns all rights to King’s “name, image, likeness, words, rights of publicity, copyrighted works, recorded voice, and trademark interests.”

It also chided the governor for not getting in touch. “When the media reported that the Governor referenced this initiative in remarks he made on the King Holiday, we expected to hear from your office and the appropriate parties seeking the Estate’s input and approval,” wrote Eric Tidwell, managing director of Intellectual Properties Management.

“To date, we have not received any formal request for permission to utilize any of Dr. King’s (intellectual property).”

The missive provoked a quick exchange between Riley, the governor’s top aide, and the King family representative.

“We will continue to monitor the legislation,” Riley wrote in a same-day email. “Please do not assume the governor would ever try to financially capitalize on the legacy of Dr. King. He is simply … trying to honor a great Georgian.”