“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” – Martin Luther King Jr., Aug. 28, 1963

As the nation commemorates the 80th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth, I am filled with emotions – remembering the struggles of days past, invigorated by current events that include the inauguration of the country’s first African-American president and instilled with a wondrous sense of hope for brighter days ahead.

If only King could have lived to see this day, one that many would say represents, at least in part, a fulfillment of the dream he had back in 1963.

His children would live to see the transformation of a country once bitterly divided and severely marred by segregation and discrimination. For that he most assuredly would be grateful.

In a way, we who are beneficiaries of King’s incredible legacy are all his children.

But today I cannot forget that the slain civil rights leader and his wife, Coretta, were the parents of two boys and two girls who had to share their daddy with the rest of the world.

I’m often reminded of that photograph from King’s funeral of his youngest child, Bernice, who had turned 5 just days before her father’s death. Her head, bearing white ribbons to match her frilly white dress, lay in the lap of her mother, who sat stoically in black, her veiled face symbolic of the entire nation’s grief.

There was another iconic picture of the four children walking with their mother and uncle, A.D. King, in the funeral procession after the service. Even at their tender ages – Yolanda was 12; Martin III, 10; and Dexter, 7 – the youngsters demonstrated a maturity and a proud confidence that won the admiration of millions who watched in their own stunned bereavement.

They had captured our hearts, the same as two other children – John and Caroline – had done five years earlier after the assassination of their father, John F. Kennedy.

It pains me to admit that I don’t have such admiration for the King kids today.

Sadly, over the years the children would lose some of that precious charm as they fought not only to hang on to their father’s legacy, but to own it.

Just before he was killed, King had talked about what he wanted someone to say at his own funeral, insisting that the eulogist not mention the awards he had received or his individual accomplishments.

Instead, he said, he wanted to be remembered for “serving others” and being “an advocate for justice.”

That’s what he wanted to leave with the world, he said, “because I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And then my living will not be in vain.”

At times I’ve wondered if his family ever reviews those words.

On more than one occasion over the years, I have lamented some of the actions taken by King’s widow and her offspring as they fought privately and publicly to control the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent and Social Change in Atlanta.

They seemed willing to put a price tag on everything – copyrighting his public speeches and writings, licensing his image for commercial use and cutting a multi-million-dollar deal with a publishing and recording company.

Then a couple of years ago, the Kings, in a move that shocked scholars, civil rights leaders and the black community in general, put 7,000 items (dating from 1946 to 1968) on the auction block at Sotheby’s. The notes and drafts of King’s most famous speeches were included.

They certainly had the right to do this, but such action seemed so crass and, without a doubt, greedy.

There was a fear that the papers would end up in the hands of some private collector, becoming unavailable to the public.

Leaders in Atlanta, however, fought to keep the documents there and, one day before the auction was scheduled, the city of Atlanta secured a $32 million privately financed loan to buy the collection and have it archived at King’s alma mater, Morehouse College.

Since the deaths of their mother in 2006 and their oldest sibling, Yolanda, in 2007, the three surviving King children are in a dispute over control of their mother’s estate, and are accusing each other of mishandling funds.

All three children are board members of the family cooperation, but Bernice is administrator of her mother’s estate while Dexter is head of King Inc., “which controls the intellectual property rights of their father,” according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Dexter apparently had made a deal to use his mom’s papers for a biography about her. Bernice and Martin III, the newspaper said, “argue that some of these records are too personal to be made public. They also contend Dexter King has effectively shut them out of the company by refusing to call a family board meeting in more than four years.”

It is not uncommon for heirs to squabble even when there is little money involved. When there’s a lot of money at stake, it almost is inevitable that family ties are broken.

It hurts that at this special time, when people all over the nation are focusing again on King’s dream, his children are fighting over his memory.

And I can’t help but wonder now about “the content of their character.”

Bob Ray Sanders is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. E-mail: [email protected]

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