This is an interview with Dr. Daniel Fleming, whose article “‘I Have a Copyright’: The Privatization of Martin Luther King’s Dream” won the AAIHS’s 2019 Maria Stewart Journal Article Prize.
AAIHS Editors: Every article has its own creation story. Tell us more about your process in composing the article. How did you come to this material?
Daniel Fleming: The article evolved out of my PhD dissertation about the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, which I wrote at the University of Newcastle in Australia. I have long been fascinated by, and been an admirer of, Martin Luther King Jr., and I wrote my master’s thesis about King and the FBI. While conducting research for the final chapter of that work, I learned that the FBI had attempted to block the creation of the King holiday by posthumously besmirching King’s reputation. This piqued my interest in the King holiday, and I noticed that many conservative leaders wanted to stop the holiday, but suddenly appropriated it when it became a near political inevitability. I wanted to know more, and I could also see that there was a need for a new analysis of the King holiday. With that in mind, I began my dissertation.
I conducted most of my research in the National Archives in Atlanta, Georgia. Before my first trip to Atlanta, I had not been to the US. I would ultimately make three research trips to that city, and I also went to the New York Public Library, which impressed me with its beauty. I located transcripts of the King Holiday Commission meetings and immersed myself in those and in many other documents. The Commission existed for 11 years, and its files provided a wonderful snapshot of the thoughts of Coretta Scott King and her plans for the holiday. The archive revealed how the Commission planned the inaugural holiday and shaped the meaning of subsequent holidays during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. The Commission constantly attempted to engage the American public and to promote King’s legacy, while trying not to dilute his message. It did not always succeed in these tasks, but it was a creative and consultative organization. Coretta led the Commission and while it debated various ideas and plans, meetings rarely, if ever, became heated.
The character of the Commission changed when Dexter Scott King, the Kings’ second son, began to lead The King Center in 1995. Suddenly, Commission meetings became very heated as Dexter attempted to implement his plan to manage the King legacy. Not until I sifted through the materials gathered on my second research trip did I read transcripts of these meetings. As I did, I experienced the sensation of having many of my questions answered. From earlier research I had noted that the Commission had collapsed, but I was not sure why. Reading that Dexter wanted to package and market his father’s legacy in the same way that Coca-Cola marketed and sold its products was my most “eureka”-like moment, followed by finding memos sent in Coretta Scott King’s name in which she supported Dexter’s plans.
Looking at the Commission’s collapse forced me to think about the management of King’s legacy and to think more deeply about the role of the King family. Although this complimented my scholarship about the holiday, in some ways it also represented a detour. That detour led to the article. I thought that there was more to learn about Dexter’s plan and that this had become a project in its own right. At the beginning of my research, I did not anticipate my findings in this area, and writing an article was the best way to explore this detour in more detail.
Editors: What are your major findings for this article? What do you hope that readers will take away from reading this work?
Fleming: Initially, I found it difficult to comprehend why Dexter thought it necessary to disband the Commission, which he did in 1995/96 in order to implement his plan. Why did he think that that organization was in his way? I also wondered why it was relatively easy for Dexter to pressure the Commission into shutting down. I sensed that although he was personally ambitious, there was more to this history. Reading more broadly about the economic reforms and ideas of the 1980s and 1990s, I realized that Dexter did what many other business owners were doing at the time, and what governments were encouraging or forcing them to do. Dexter implemented a neoliberal business plan, in the shadow of the Republican Revolution of 1994, to manage his father’s legacy. At the same time, the global market for intellectual property rights was being codified, and he sought to market his father’s words to the world. To do this most effectively, he sought to create a King brand and to standardize his father’s legacy so it would appear the same all the world over. This echoed Coca-Cola’s product development and marketing strategies, and it was the main reason he wanted to terminate the Commission: it threatened to offer a contrasting message and represented competition.
Dexter privatized his father’s legacy by restricting access to his words and then charging very large sums to those wanting to use them. He also downsized The King Center by cutting its work force and spending. This not only gave him increased influence, but it also proved to be financially lucrative. He was able to justify these actions because The King Center had struggled financially for decades. However, in following this path, I think that Dexter unwittingly played into the hands of conservative King critics who wanted the government, which the Commission represented to a large extent, to be less involved in promoting King’s legacy.
Editors: What does your work contribute to thinking about the various crosscutting claims on King’s legacy? Where do you think the discussion of King’s legacy is headed and why?
Fleming: I hope readers will have a better insight into the commercialization of King’s legacy and the tensions between his heirs, both from his family and the Civil Rights Movement. Although the King family has a legitimate and legal claim to his legacy, the increasing privatization of his thoughts and words in the 1990s would have discomfited King. Many of his former colleagues in the Civil Rights Movement spoke out against this, and my work situates King’s legacy in the broader context of the neoliberal economy of the mid 1990s.
Based on the recent past, discussion of King’s legacy is headed in several directions. First, the King holiday received a great deal of criticism in 2015 as Black Lives Matter crested. Many activists voiced their concern that King Day did not represent King’s radicalism. This criticism came despite reforms made in 1994 to make the holiday a day of service; these reforms were ostensibly made to encourage Americans to help the poor on the holiday and to further the completion of King’s unfinished agenda. Those reforms represented an attempt to make the holiday a more active tribute to King; however, the question needs to be asked: does the holiday need to be reformed again to make it more relevant in the 21st century? If so, how?
Yet, even if the holiday remains in its current form, it will still be a powerful reminder of King’s legacy. For example, it provides President Trump with an uncomfortable moment each year as he must celebrate — or at least pay lip service to — a man whose fight against racism stands in contrast to the president’s record on race relations. King’s legacy will still be used in the fight against white supremacy and in the continuing struggle to desegregate the memorial landscape.
Second, continuing economic inequality in the US means that King’s reputation as a fighter against economic injustice will remain very important. His emphasis on building a multiracial and progressive coalition, particularly after 1965, foreshadowed many subsequent coalition building efforts. Third, in many ways, the most important aspect of King’s legacy was his adherence to nonviolence. Gun violence in the US is at epidemic proportions, and the militarization of civilian police is of deep concern. But invoking his legacy can help reduce the incidence of violence in the US. Fourth, it will be hard to stop the mythologizing of King and to stop the appropriation of his legacy by people seeking to distort it, but historians must keep writing histories that provide current and future generations with an understanding of who King was, what his public achievements were, what his failings as an activist were, who his allies and opponents were, and to reinforce the idea that he acted in concert with others.
Finally, as I write, discussion of King’s legacy is going into uncomfortable places. In the #MeToo era, King’s sexual ethics and activities are under renewed scrutiny. King biographer David Garrow claims to have found very damning evidence of King on these matters. He has reheated some old allegations and pointed to new and serious ones. These allegations are based on FBI sources released by the National Archives, and Garrow’s claims have generated an extraordinarily heated debate. If this matter does not come to a head now, it will in 2027 when the National Archives release the remaining unseen FBI files and tapes.