King's `dream' speech belongs to all, not just his family

May 20, 1999|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- At first it sounds like a question for a panel of philosophers: Who owns a dream? What happens when a vision that's formed in the words of one person is released like a balloon into the air to be shared with everyone? Whose property is it then?

The dream in this case was described by Martin Luther King Jr. Standing before a crowd of 200,000 at the Lincoln Memorial on that August day in 1963, he found the language to match the moment. "I Have a Dream," he told the country in a speech that became a part of our collective eloquence, as much a part of our heritage as the Gettysburg Address.

King had a gift. Now people are wrangling over the value of that gift.

Today the question of dreamers and owners, words and property, history and money, has been set before a panel of three judges in Atlanta. The King family is asking an appeals court to rule that CBS must pay them to use the dream speech in a documentary sold on videotape. They claim that they -- not the public -- own King's words.

For years, the King family has been protective or litigious -- choose one or the other. They sued and settled with Henry Hampton, who produced the "Eyes on the Prize" documentary. They sued and settled with USA Today. They regard themselves as keepers of the legacy . . . and the accounting books.

Drum major for justice

In 1963, no one would have believed there was money to be made from civil rights history. In his lifetime, King was interested in justice, not profit. His family at times lived on the salary of a $6,000-a-year minister. He contributed everything, even his Nobel Prize money, to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

When King was assassinated, the sum total of his estate was a $50,000 insurance policy bought for him by singer Harry Belafonte. That, plus his words.

Big deals

These words are what the family lawyers call "intellectual property." It's property that will soon be worth an estimated $50 million from multimedia deals, licensing and real estate.

I do not mean to suggest that the family is in the protection racket solely for the money. Schools are granted the use of the "dream" speech freely. At the same time, one of the many lawsuits was against a company that wanted to use King's image on refrigerator magnets.

It's not surprising that the family would resist the trivialization of a man's magnetism into a refrigerator magnet. It's far too easy in our culture to slip from being a martyr on a pedestal to a pop icon on a T-shirt. While we are talking about King and commercialism, it is fair to ask the difference between the family profit -- much of which goes to the Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta -- and CBS' profit.

Property rights

But nevertheless there is still the little matter of public history and private property.

In the appeals court, the case will not be decided on the grounds of greed but of copyright law and free speech.

On the one hand, King gave the press advance copies of the speech; on the other hand, the most eloquent passages were extemporaneous. On the one hand, he copyrighted the speech after it was given; on the other hand, he characterized it as "a living petition to the public and the Congress."

Those of us who work with words for a living understand the desire to control our ephemeral "product." We are sensitive to the notion of intellectual property and do not take kindly to bootlegged editions of CDs or books or software that show up on black markets.

But Martin Luther King was not a rock star. Or a software designer. He was a preacher, a leader, a prophet, a martyr. He was, in every sense of the word, a public figure.

One day, 36 years ago, he gave voice to our collective idealism, and words to our best collective yearnings: "I have a dream 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."

This is not a private dream. It doesn't belong to his family estate. It belongs to all of us.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 5/20/99

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