At Martin Luther King Center, More Turnover and Turmoil

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January 27, 2012; Source: Atlanta Journal Constitution | At one time, Martin L. King III served as both president and CEO of the nonprofit Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta. Two weeks ago, the board of the Center, which is comprised almost entirely of King family members, ousted King III as CEO, but he promised he would stay on the board and play an active role. Last week, King III quit the board, too, citing “concerns” about the future of the organization. What is happening at this nationally prominent institution that was created to honor and promote the message and meaning of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.?

The board removed King III as CEO because, as he himself wrote, he “disagree[d] with the new direction of the board, which makes the center essentially an extension of King Inc. rather than acknowledge the fundamentally different and at times conflicting motives of a for-profit corporation vs. a public foundation.” His argument was that when the for-profit King Inc. was placed in control of the King Center, it blurred the line between the nonprofit Center and the for-profit that was established by the family to control and license the use of Dr. King’s image and words (King Inc. has contentiously fought some of those that have reproduced Dr. King’s speeches and quotations without the family’s approval). After years of bitter strife within the family over the Center and the legacy of Dr. King, it wasn’t a surprise that the Atlanta Journal Constitution cited an unnamed person claiming that King III lost his CEO position “because he wasn’t a good leader.”

After King III resigned as board president, the board invited Houston attorney Terry M. Giles, described as “custodian” of the for-profit King Inc., to also serve as custodian of the nonprofit King Center. Giles contends that, as CEO, King III wasn’t “moving the organization forward” and had done “virtually no fundraising…to ‘assure the future and proper care of the center.’”

The removal of King III as CEO occurred during a conference call at a January 5th board meeting. Out of the seven board members, the one non-family member—former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young—did not participate. The board also includes Dexter King and sister Bernice King, who was named CEO. Her appointment by the board was a surprise, since she has supported King III over Dexter King in the struggle between the two in the past. It seems that Bernice joined the others in voting to oust King III, and apparently Dexter will continue as board chair.

The latest developments follow years of turmoil within the family and at the King Center, which has struggled to maintain or increase funding from the Department of the Interior as the Center has generally suffered from consistent red ink. Putting aside the seemingly miserable relationships among the family members, there is obviously a tug of war between nonprofit and for-profit values at the King Center. –Rick Cohen