Last week, we reported that Harry Belafonte, singer and activist, filed suit against the heirs of Martin Luther King, Jr., namely his three surviving children. Five years ago, Belafonte had intended to auction three documents that King had written: a condolence letter to Lady Bird Johnson; an outline of a Vietnam War speech; and notes for a speech King was supposed to give in Memphis. One of the documents in question had been left at Belafonte’s apartment. The other documents were given to Belafonte by the widow of one of King’s closet friends. As most of us know, Belafonte and King were very good friends. Coretta Scott King noted how helpful Belafonte had been to the family over the years. Belafonte’s suit aims to prove that he is the rightful owner of the documents. This would allow the documents to be auctioned, the proceeds from which would go to a charity that hopes to end gang violence. None of this matters to the King children. Instead, they are claiming that Belafonte essentially stole these documents, thereby placing them in limbo for the last five years.
Unfortunately, those of us who hear about the comings and goings of the King heirs aren’t surprised by this. Just last month, King’s two sons, Dexter and Martin III, who are executors of his estate, sued a non-profit run by their sister, Bernice, because she had intended to use some King memorabilia she no longer had license to use as exhibits in a museum for her father. In 2008, Martin III and Bernice were on the same side of a battle over photographs and other material a writer wanted to use for a biography of their mother. Dexter King had brokered a $1.4 million book deal, but Martin III and Bernice weren’t having it, saying that their mother would not have wanted the biography. Before her death in 2007, Yolanda King, like her mother Coretta, was a supporter of gay rights, making her clearly at odds with Bernice King, a homophobe. And now, they’re calling Uncle Harry a thief.
This is unfortunate. It’s ugly, And it just ain’t right.
It got me thinking, though: Why do the King children behave this way? Is it pride? Is it money? An all-too-public sibling rivalry? Perhaps. But here’s another thought: maybe it’s because they didn’t have a father around.
Granted, unlike many fatherless black children in America, the King children know who their father is. And, they all have the same dad–who was married to their mom. Yet, this knowledge doesn’t somehow fill the emptiness of a father’s absence. Think about it. Like many black fathers, Martin Luther King was in and out of jail. He was arrested thirty times. That’s right, thirty. Can you imagine how inconsistent that is for young children? There were no Sesame Street
puppets around at the time to explain the situation adequately. Even if there were some, I don’t know that the explanation would have been sufficient for the emptiness the children might have felt. Sorry, Yolanda, Daddy can’t come to your ballet recital. He’s in jail–again.
Second, although I’ve noted that King was married to the King children’s mother until his death, his infidelity is well-known. How devastating must it have been for the King children to learn about their father’s myriad violation of his marriage vows? Did such actions teach them not to respect women? Not to trust men? To be all right with casual, out-of-wedlock sex? To be pessimistic about the institution of marriage? Third, he died violently. Of a gunshot wound. How many black children have to deal with their father going to jail and ultimately dying by gunshot? Fourth, King was the de facto leader of the civil rights movement for approximately twelve years. That’s twelve years of marching, of speeches, of arrests. Of travel. Of not being home all the time. Of hanging out in Uncle Harry’s crash pad. Of absence. Of fatherly absence.I don’t mean to judge, but what we forget in our admiration of Martin Luther King is that his legacy came at a cost. And that cost made M.L.K. M.I.A. sometimes. Twelve years are not twelve weeks. Twelve years are not twelve days. They are twelve years. And twelve years is a long time. Sure, Martin Luther King was a busy guy. He had presidents to meet and speeches to give. But parental responsibility is important. Personal responsibility is key. And again, I’m not judging, but I can’t help but to wonder aloud if his dedication to the movement, which we are all so very grateful for, came at the cost of a lack of special time and attention to his four children. And we know that a father’s absence can be the precise and only reason why children are poor, abused, and sometimes act like they ain’t got no home training.
Think before you decide to have a child or four. Just because you can have one, doesn’t mean you should. Don’t take my word for it. The public fighting of the King children for the last few years speaks volumes.