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Who owns MLK's legacy?

The King family 'cannot litigate how people choose to be inspired by him'

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The children of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. are no strangers to litigation. For the last few years, the siblings have fought in courtrooms over who should control the image and historic speeches, among other intellectual property, of their father.

Last month, on the 50th anniversary of the civil rights leader's "I Have A Dream" speech, King's children once again sued each other in a dispute over the proper use of his likeness and the composition of the board of the nonprofit designed to oversee his legacy.

As King's heirs, the children of the civil rights leader have the right to set the commercial terms on which others may use and profit from his likeness. While I hope they can iron out this latest disagreement, the timing of this particular case raises larger questions about King's larger philosophical legacy. The King family can prevent unauthorized T-shirts bearing their father's face from showing up for sale in gas stations or videos of his speeches being mixed with music videos. But they cannot litigate how people choose to be inspired by him. We, though, can be intellectually honest about the ways we choose to appropriate his legacy.

Everyone today, even the oddest bedfellows, seems to lay intellectual claim to King. Glenn Beck staged his own march on Washington on August 28, 2010, complete with Squanto's descendants and a King niece, and Occupy protesters invoked his legacy in their movement one year later. Everyone — liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat, color-conscious and color-blind — has seemingly invoked King's inspiration. That so many people try to lay claim to him underscores his significance to American political thought. Sadly, though, we must ask ourselves if we know enough about King to properly appropriate his legacy.

In his 2010 MLK Day speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Professor Cornel West urged the audience to get beyond the "sanitized" image of King and to embrace the "funky" King. The King who saw his influence wane when he opposed the Vietnam War. The King who identified poverty as the next great front of the Civil Rights Movement. The King who, in his pursuit of economic justice, had a hard time connecting with northern, urban blacks. If we contend with all of King's intellectual legacy — not just the parts that sound great in sound bites — we won't find validation for every side of every contemporary justice issue.

Nor is it possible to know what King would have thought about every issue that's arisen since his death. While we can attempt to extrapolate his potential opinions on those issues from the writings he left behind, we'll never really know King's stance on those issues. Maybe an older King would have gotten consumed with one issue to the exclusion of all others. Maybe he would have changed his mind. Maybe he would have had a blind spot on some issue — it happens to the best of us. The fact of the matter is that we really don't know. So perhaps we shouldn't speculate.

Just because we'll never know for sure what King would have thought about contemporary issues doesn't mean that we cannot be inspired by him to dream our own dreams. We just need to own them as our own and let them stand (or fall) on their own merits. If anything, the biggest lesson we can take from the Civil Rights Movement is that ordinary people with extraordinary dreams can work together to change the world. You don't need to misappropriate King's legacy to dream those dreams.

In a special issue commemorating the 50th anniversary of the march, Time magazine invited Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani advocate for girls' education who was nearly murdered by the Taliban last year, to write a tribute to King. In her piece, she notes that, while King died a generation before her own birth on the other side of the world, he "inspired millions of people, including me, to dream."

And then she articulates her own dream: "My dream is to see every child with a book and pen. I dream that every woman in the world will be treated with dignity and equality." I doubt that her dream is inconsistent with King's dream, but it's wholly hers, born out of the context in which she lives and tailored to her times and circumstances.

One hopes that there will be a time in which the specifics of King's dream seem quaint. Even when that happens, though, King's dream should stay relevant — not because of the substance of the dream, but because of the spirit of the dream and because of the fact that he dared to dream.

The King family will likely resolve their differences about the business aspect of their father's legacy. The rest of us still have to decide how we should best honor his intellectual legacy. The commemorative marches were great. The best thing to do going forward is to study King anew and truly understand him in the context of his times. If we claim inspiration from King, then we should at least make the effort to digest the totality of his work, instead of just appropriating his image or an excerpt of one speech. No lawsuit will ever prevent the dissemination of King's philosophical legacy. And without a doubt, education is one of the best ways to honor him anyway.

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