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.”
Tidwell replied that “the notion of monetizing Dr. King’s image on the part of the governor never crossed our mind.” The King family has often allowed licenses to use King’s image at no cost to governments, Tidwell said. But the family wants to be included “in the process to determine how Dr. King will be honored.”
Repeated calls to Tidwell by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution were not returned Thursday.
HB 1080 does not offer any specifics of how King would be honored, but sets the process in motion — and states that the project would be paid for with private funds.
Smyre said the family would be “fully” involved if a statue is built. He said the fact that a licensing issue would eventually arise was well known, as was the King children’s diligent efforts to control their father’s legacy and intellectual property rights.
The most vivid and recent example occurred in conjunction with the 2011 erection of the King Memorial on the National Mall.
Before the memorial opened, King Inc. battled with the foundation that funded the project over control — seeking, for example, to have all King’s books removed from the memorial bookstore.
In 2013, King Inc. forced the foundation, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Foundation, to shut down after refusing to allow them to continue using the name “Martin Luther King Jr.” The website that had been the foundation’s primary fundraising tool was also shut down.
The foundation had paid the King family $2.7 million for the use of King’s likeness and quotes on the memorial.
At times, disagreements over the proper stewardship of their father’s legacy has split even his children into warring camps.
Thursday morning, five days before she is required by a judge to turn over her father’s Bible and Nobel medal, Bernice King renewed her public campaign to persuade her brothers not to sell the items.
“I implore you to consider the magnitude of this moment in history and how you want your individual legacies to be defined,” she said. “I urge you to reconsider your position, so when the books are written, you will be on the right side of history.”
Following a January vote, in which her bothers outvoted her 2-1 to seek a buyer, Bernice King refused to surrender the two items. Her brothers filed suit to compel her to do so.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons