Preserving the King Legacy

January 20, 1995|By GARRY WILLS

Chicago -- It was a shame to have Martin Luther King's holiday marred by squabbling between the King family and the National Park Service over the custody of the fallen leader's neighborhood. But the action has let the nation in on a problem that scholars and publishers have faced for a long time.

Mrs. King strives for absolute control over ''the legacy'' of King, over all his words and whatever words are devoted to him. Newspapers are not allowed to reproduce his greatest speech, as a tribute to him, without permission and payment. Writers of books are asked to submit their work for prior review as a condition of quoting the man's works. Rather than go through this, some writers deprive their readers of the power of King's words.

Fair payment for use of intellectual property is not the issue. Mrs. King has put roadblocks on the path of the honest reporting of King's attitude toward plagiarism, and of his sexual activities. She has tried to get back from the university where her husband took his doctorate the papers he committed to them by legal will. It is hardly a tribute to the man to force him to break his word.

John Kennedy's widow also tried to control the reporting of her husband's life. But even she, with all her legal, financial and social resources, found that she could not muzzle authors such as William Manchester. The truth came out, as it was bound to; but she looked, for a while, as if she were afraid of the truth or an enemy to it.

King's son, who has taken over for his mother, attacks the National Park Service because it knows too little about the real story of King's cause. He says: ''We feel strongly that the heritage of the civil-rights movement is too important to be controlled by a government agency that has only superficial familiarity with the internal dynamics of our freedom struggle.'' But who is making it hard for scholars to know the full story?

No one can claim that Ralph Abernathy lacked ''familiarity with the internal dynamics of our freedom struggle.'' He clearly knew more about those dynamics than did young Dexter King. Yet Abernathy's book was vilified because it did not toe the King Center line, did not present an unrealistic picture of King.

The history of the civil-rights movement has been very difficult to write because participants are intimidated. They do not want to displease Mrs. King and others. Some refuse to give interviews to historians. Others have been unable to meet book contracts they drew up with reputable publishers.

There is no reason to fear that King will lose stature as historians look at him honestly. His greatness coexisted with flaws, as all greatness does. It is no service to history, to truth or to him for the King family to present a solid front against the inquiries of impartial scholars.

This prior experience makes it clear who should be favored in the dispute between the Park Service and the family. Most people would be proud to have their husband or father treated as the Park Service treats Abraham Lincoln's neighborhood. The record of the Park Service, for historical accuracy, openness to the public, and respect for the treasures entrusted to it, is extremely high. I have visited most of the historic buildings it preserves, and I'm continually impressed by the service it performs for the public and for the surrounding area.

The Park Service is the proper custodian for what is a national treasure, not merely a private one.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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