Content Is King

Content Is King

Content Is King

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
March 16 1997 3:30 AM

Content Is King

Dexter King is a King for the '90s.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

After the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, a host of civil-rights leaders made a grab for his mantle. The Rev. Joseph Lowery laid claim to it. The Rev. Jesse Jackson waved the bloody shirt. Widow Coretta Scott King established the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change Inc. Martin King III made a brief stab at a political career. But the person who has capitalized most on the legacy is King's younger son, 36-year-old Dexter King.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

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Dexter emerged as the King family spokesman in early 1995, when he succeeded Coretta as president and CEO of the King Center. He inaugurated his tenure with a call to arms: "My father delivered political freedom, and I would like to deliver economic freedom. ... I'm calling home all those freedom fighters who marched with my father. Dexter Scott King is going to be there with you this time, and we will make it to the promised land."

The promised land, as it turned out, looks like Graceland. One of Dexter's first acts as president was to meet the caretakers of Elvis' image to learn how to market King like the King. He hasn't let up since. In the last four months alone, the King family has:

    • signed a contract with Oliver Stone, who plans a movie about the assassination (just imagine the scene where J. Edgar Hoover, dolled up in tutu and lip gloss, orders the King hit);
    • made a gigantic deal with Time Warner to market King's speeches and writings; and
    • sued CBS, alleging that the network had violated copyright laws by excerpting the "I Have a Dream" speech in a documentary.

In February, the family also made headlines by announcing that it supported James Earl Ray's motion for a trial. Ray, who pleaded guilty to King's assassination without trial, is dying of liver disease. He claims he was a patsy. King family members hint at a grand and sinister conspiracy.

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Dexter, it seems, has revived the dream. Not that dream, but the American dream that anyone can make a fortune. In the '90s version, all it takes is a catalog of marketable data, vigorous application of copyright law, the financial muscle of a multinational media conglomerate, a few good lawyers, and frequent talk-show appearances.

Talking with Dexter King is a disconcerting, demoralizing experience. Disconcerting because his voice has the same intonation, the same accent, the same creamy richness as his father's. Demoralizing because his message is so distant from his father's. Martin spoke the language of protest, sacrifice, spirituality. Beneath Dexter's stentorian tones and rhythmic tide one hears only managementese. "It makes logical sense to align ourselves with a major player in the industry." "We are moving from the hardware side of the business to the software side." His "vision," he assures me, is "holistic."

When Dexter took over the King Center, the Atlanta-based nonprofit needed help. Coretta was a reliable liberal mascot, but she foundered as an executive. The center had become a hodgepodge of unconnected programs--a day-care center, a library, a nonviolence training school. It alienated sponsors and neighbors and overshot its budget, amassing a $600,000 annual deficit by the early '90s. "The programmatic impact of the King Center across the last decade has been somewhere between small and nonexistent," says David Garrow, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his King biography, Bearing the Cross.

Dexter, who had spent most of his professional career as a music producer and promoter, was the one who realized that the family was sitting on a valuable asset: the collected works of Martin Luther King Jr. These were 24-carat golden oldies.

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If content is king, Dexter reasoned, then King should be content. Consider the Time Warner licensing deal, which will generate as much as $10 million a year for the King estate. It covers every angle a young media entrepreneur could dream of: highbrow nonfiction (the first comprehensive collection of King's sermons); innovative nonfiction (a King "autobiography" cobbled together from his writings); audiotapes of King speeches; high-tech (a fancy civil-rights Web site); and even a little snack for Dexter's ego (the young man's memoirs, which are to include his thoughts on health and nutrition). Dexter and his business partner and college friend Phillip Jones have also accelerated licensing of Martin Luther King Jr. products: You can now buy "Keep the Dream Alive" checks and tasteful King statuettes. (Countering a question about tackiness, Dexter says, "You should see what we turned down--'I Have a Dream' ice cream, Martin Luther King pocketknives.") Dexter and Jones are also seeking financing for their pièce de résistance, the King Dream Center, a $50-million interactive museum complete with virtual-reality games. Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Cynthia Tucker has dubbed it "I Have a Dreamland."

The family has also tightened its grip on King's work. Besides the CBS suit, it won $1,700 plus legal fees from USA Today after the newspaper reprinted the "I Have a Dream" speech without permission. The Kings demand stiff payments from authors and TV producers who want to republish or air King's speeches.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

Not surprisingly, many King fans see something grotesque in milking King's immortal words for cash. Both Garrow and fellow King biographer Taylor Branch have criticized the family for its tight-fisted control of King's papers. Civil-rights leader Julian Bond, who reprinted three King speeches in a textbook, has denounced the exorbitant rates charged by the King estate. Bond estimated that the King fees alone added between $10 and $15 to the price of his book. "It is a travesty in the King legacy. Did Jesus belong to Mary?" asks the Rev. Hosea Williams, a Martin Luther King Jr. lieutenant.

Dexter does have copyright law on his side, a point that he makes with numbing regularity. "It has always been our legal right [to control King's works]," he says. America may claim King as its civic saint and "I Have a Dream" as a national manifesto, but King's words belong to his estate. In fact, the words are the family's only inheritance, since King left no material legacy. Dexter also scoffs at the notion that King would be appalled. Martin Luther King Jr. himself copyrighted the "I Have a Dream" speech two days after he delivered it, and he sued a record company to enforce the copyright. (Not that King père was always so scrupulous about copyright. He did, after all, commit plagiarism when writing his dissertation.)

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Dexter also preaches free-market moralism. Marketing MLK is not merely good business--it's good, period. The real purpose of the ventures, he says, is to revive his father's image, to spread "Kingian" thought in the most effective way possible. Publicizing King will make him live: "His media was marching. We are substituting the means of today--CD-ROMs, the Internet, books--to get the message out. ... Our intentions were not for profit. The profit happens to be a byproduct of doing the right thing."

Time Warner, after all, can reach the entire world. A small university press can't. "The end result of what Dexter is doing now will be to make King's ideas far more publicly accessible than they ever have been before," says Stanford University Professor Clayborne Carson, who is editing King's papers for the King Center.

It's an argument that would go down easier if Dexter were promoting anything besides commercial enterprises. After all, the King Center has eliminated (or, in Dexter's words, "divested") the center's social-welfare and educational programs, and Dexter rarely takes public positions on subjects that don't concern the King family's bottom line.

Which brings us to James Earl Ray, one case where Dexter has taken a position on a public issue. In February, Dexter and Coretta testified at a Tennessee hearing in favor of Ray's request for a trial. Ray has requested (and been denied) a trial seven times, and the King family has never backed his petitions before. But this time is different, says Dexter, because Ray is dying, and because the Ray family has asked the Kings to speak out. (More cynical observers say this time is different because of the Kings' deal with Oliver Stone.) Dexter says the family has always doubted that Ray was the killer, and he cites "compelling new evidence" of Ray's innocence collected by Ray attorney William Pepper. Biographer Garrow, himself a student of the assassination, calls Pepper's evidence "complete, utter, hilarious bullshit. ... The fact that Dexter and Mrs. King take Pepper seriously is sad."

The Tennessee judge ruled for Ray, calling for ballistics tests to determine if a gun with Ray's fingerprint fired the lethal bullet. But this decision is a long, long way from a trial. If an appeals court sustains the ruling (which is considered unlikely), and if subsequent ballistics tests indicate that the gun did not fire the deadly bullet, then there could be a new trial.

Not that the delay has deterred Dexter. He's planning to visit Ray in prison this week. And he's taking his case to the public--the King book- and audiotape- and movie-ticket-buying public. He did Nightline. He did Johnnie Cochran's show. He did Jesse Jackson's show. He did Montel. That's what a King does in the '90s.