Civil rights leaders and family friends fear the death of Coretta Scott King will endanger efforts to preserve properly the legacy of Martin Luther King and the nonviolent movement he led in the 1960s.
While Mrs. King was devoted to highlighting her husband’s contribution to American history through the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, her children are not united about how to manage the landmark they say has fallen into disrepair.
“She spent years, when people have pummeled her for the efforts since 1968, to build this center so that people might know this man, and she was dead serious about that,” said the Rev. Walter E. Fauntroy, King’s representative to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson in the 1960s, who chaired the King Center’s board for 17 years.
“She was consumed in her work, and her work became her pleasure,” he said, referring to the establishment of King’s birthday as a national holiday and persuading the U.S. government to enact sanctions against the apartheid government of South Africa.
Mrs. King, who died Jan. 30 at age 78, ran the center — located next to Ebenezer Baptist Church where King presided as pastor with his father — until 1994.
Dexter King subsequently oversaw it before giving control to his older brother, Martin Luther King III, in 2004. In December, Dexter King, as a board member, voted to sell it to the National Park Service, a proposal that has divided the four King children. Yolanda King, the oldest, is an actress, and Bernice King, the youngest child, is a Baptist minister in Atlanta.
“I don’t think the world needs to see the King family fighting about anything,” said Bishop George Bloomer, pastor of Bethel Family Worship Center in Durham, N.C., and a good friend of Bernice King.
“We cannot allow one of our greatest institutions and monuments to fall into disrepair,” he said.
The National Park Service now runs three historical sites in Atlanta related to King, including a museum that is part of Ebenezer Baptist Church, a visitors center adjacent to the King Center, and Fire Station No. 6 in Sweet Auburn, which in 1963 was the first station to be racially integrated as a direct result of King’s work. It also conducts tours of the King family home in Sweet Auburn, a historic black neighborhood in Atlanta.
While it has been widely publicized that the board has voted to sell the site, no movement toward that effort has occurred.
“We have not talked to the family, and no offer has been made, so we are waiting on the family to decide what they want to do,” said Judy Forte, acting associate regional director of operations and education for the National Park Service.
For the size and scope of the exhibits housed at the center, money should not be a problem, said University of Maryland professor Ronald Walters.
“It is amazing that no American corporation or institution has stepped forward to say that we will provide the necessary funds to preserve this legacy, considering all of the efforts and history of Dr. King and the vast majority of people who have benefited from them,” said Mr. Walters, who is on the board that oversees the historic Frederick Douglass Home in Southeast Washington.
Mr. Walters said that aside from a private endowment, the only other option to keep the King Center open is to sell it to the Park Service. But he said he would not endorse that move.
The center’s board would lose most of its authority to the bureaucracy of the Park Service, he said. “And you involve the Congress, and the Park Service has to put this on its budget, and recently the Park Service has had to go outside of Congress for funding.”