Youngest son taking control of King legacy

January 16, 1995|By Los Angeles Times

ATLANTA -- The resemblance is most pronounced when he is at rest. Leaning back in his leather chair, his head cocked to one side as he listens quietly, Dexter King, the youngest son of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., suddenly, miraculously, becomes the spitting image of his father.

The almond eyes, the black mustache, the pensive air -- they all are familiar from countless pieces of mostly black-and-white documentary footage. It takes only a gesture and a few words in his rumbling voice, and it is as if a piece of old film has sprung to life, and in color.

The elder King, after all, was 34 -- his son's age -- when he delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial. By then he had already led the Montgomery bus boycott that thrust him into prominence, had already helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and served as its president, and had led countless marches in the face of threats and violence. The next year, 1964, he would win the Nobel Peace Prize.

To grow up in the shadow of such a man, who would have turned 66 yesterday, could be daunting. But if Dexter King feels intimidated, if he frets over measuring up, he does not let on.

As he assumes leadership of the social service organization that bears his father's name -- taking control at a tumultuous time when the local news media, community leaders and even former friends of his father are openly critical of his family over a proposed King memorial -- he carries himself with calm assurance.

He says he has already undergone his "journey of self-discovery," his long, dark night of the soul. He has emerged his own man, at peace with himself, he says. This all was prompted by an earlier crisis in 1989 when he was appointed president of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change -- the organization his mother founded to carry on his father's legacy -- and resigned four months later.

Now, things are different. On Dec. 30, Dexter King was placed fully in charge of a center whose operations he describes as still chaotic.

Now Mr. King wants to meld his interest in entertainment with his appointed role as keeper of his father's legacy. Whether he ultimately succeeds might depend on what happens in the next few weeks. His vision for the King Center is pinned on the creation of a high-tech interactive museum that would blend computer technology, music, video and holography.

The problem is that he wants to build the museum across the street from the King crypt -- on the same property that the U.S. Park Service has already designated as the site of its new $11.8 million visitors center. In the past, the King family and the Park Service have enjoyed a cordial relationship and, until recently, the family seemed to support the Park Service's plan.

But when the Kings came out with their own development proposal, they shocked the city's political leadership and much of the impoverished neighborhood surrounding the site, which supports the Park Service plan.

Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and a former associate of Mr. King's father, has come out against Mr. King and Coretta Scott King, his mother, as has Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell.

But Mr. King maintains that the family was misled by the size and scope of the Park Service project. He accuses Park Service officials of being interlopers who want to "colonize" the neighborhood and wrest control from the family.

It all is heading for a showdown on Saturday when Mr. Lewis will attempt to mediate what will likely be the first in a series of meetings between the parties.

A big part of his job as the new chairman, Mr. King says, will be fTC reorganizing the center and getting its internal affairs in order.

He also plans to use aggressive marketing and cutting-edge technology to reach out to a new generation. Some of his ideas are likely to stir controversy. He says he has met with representatives of Elvis Presley's estate to study their operations and the administration of Presley's Graceland mansion.

"I don't think we're looking to be as commercial in the same way," he says. "What you need to do is find out how to package King in a way that you don't lose the intensity and the reverence that people place on it."

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