Clarence Page: Legacies for keeps or up for grabs?

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Heirs care about how their parents are remembered, although they have very different ways of showing it.

The daughters of President Lyndon B. Johnson, for example, are trying busily to spruce up their father’s record of a half-century ago. The sons of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., by contrast, sound eager to offer their father’s legacy piece-by-piece to the highest bidders.

Late Wednesday (Feb. 19) Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney in Fulton County, Ga., ordered Dr. King’s 1964 Nobel Peace Prize and his well-worn “traveling Bible” to be placed in a bank lockbox under the court’s supervision until this latest round can be resolved in a long-simmering family feud over Dr. King’s personal and most cherished possessions.

That’s the Bible that was borrowed to swear in President Barack Obama’s second inauguration.

For years, King’s heirs Martin Luther King III, Dexter Scott King and the Rev. Bernice King (the Kings’ other daughter, Yolanda, died in 2007) have been in and out of court in bitter disputes within the family and outside about their father’s estate — including the use of King’s words and images.

The brothers sued Bernice, CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Change in Atlanta, on Jan. 31 to turn over the Bible and Nobel medal, which she refused to do after learning that her brothers wanted to sell them, according to reports, to keep the King Center financially viable.

But Bernice King declared in a news conference that she was “absolutely opposed to the selling of these extremely sacred items.”

It’s embarrassing to see the King heirs turn into something that resembles a bad reality TV show, as if there were such a thing as a good reality TV show.

But more significant is the intriguing legal argument that this case raises: To whom does Dr. King’s legacy belong? To his family? Or to all of us?

As Judge McBurney said, “there’s uniquely a public interest” with Dr. King’s Bible and Nobel Prize because “these are cultural relics, not just for the United States but internationally.”

Let us put that question aside for a moment as we consider another historic family. Two days before the judge’s decision, the family and friends of President Johnson announced the beginning of a series of events to commemorate his achievements a half-century ago.

Compared to the King family’s legal tangles, the challenge to Johnson’s daughters Linda Bird Johnson Robb and Luci Baines Johnson is more straightforward, as the New York Times reports. They’re trying to rescue their father’s legacy from the tragic disaster known as the Vietnam War.

Leading the commemorations will be a “Civil Rights Summit” at the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum in April, to be attended by three of the four living former presidents — Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush — to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Johnson’s Civil Rights Act.

Other planned events will commemorate such landmarks as varied as Medicare, Head Start, immigration reform, public broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Humanities and warnings on cigarette packs.

Yet, as much as these milestones are worth remembering, Vietnam is worth remembering, too. Presidential legacies have to carry their blunders as well as their successes. The more recent experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan should teach us the value of remembering Vietnam’s lessons: The best of intentions can still lead to quagmires, based on uncertain goals and flawed intelligence.

In short, history must be remembered as something that belongs to families but also to the rest of us. So are historic artifacts. The King family has a perfect right to do with their bequests as they wish. But they also have a civic obligation to work with other concerned parties to help raise money, if needed, to preserve their father’s legacy with dignity, untarnished by hints of mismanagement or greed.

“I have a dream,” said Dr. King, “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.” Judging by the content of their character these days, the sons could do better.

CLARENCE PAGE’s column is distributed by Tribune Content Agency.


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