Family quarrel and book can't smear King's legacy, civil rights colleagues say
ATLANTA -- On what would have been Martin Luther King Jr.'s 77th birthday, his family is locked in a dispute over the future of the center created in his memory, his legacy is under new scrutiny, and his greatest defender is unable to speak out.
His four children are divided over whether to sell the family-run center that promotes King's teachings.
His widow, Coretta Scott King, is recovering from a stroke that partly paralyzed her. On Saturday she made her only public appearance since last year's King holiday observance, smiling from a wheelchair at the Salute to Greatness Dinner.
And the spotlight is again hitting King's more human side in a new book that alleges extramarital affairs and a nasty split with a civil rights colleague, the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Despite all the difficulties, those who stood by King's side as soldiers in the civil rights movement say the memory of the self-named ''Drum Major for Justice" remains untouchable on his birthday today, the 20th anniversary of the King national holiday.
''Dr. King's legacy is as sound as a rock," said Tyrone Brooks, a Georgia state representative from Atlanta who worked alongside King in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which King cofounded in 1957.
Rumors of womanizing by King and feuds with Jackson and others have long been popular topics in media and books like ''And the Walls Came Tumbling Down," the memoir written decades ago by King's former right-hand man, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy.
Historian Taylor Branch's book ''At Canaan's Edge," released last week, is the latest.
In the book, the third in Branch's series detailing King's life and the civil rights movement, the author wrote of a longstanding affair that King allegedly revealed to his wife the year before his 1968 assassination.
Branch also wrote of heated arguments King had with some of his closest colleagues, including Jackson, whom he accused of trying to use the civil rights movement to promote himself. Jackson did not return telephone calls seeking comment.
US Representative John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia, a longtime civil rights activist interviewed by Branch for the book, said King's stature will always make him a target.
''We get in the habit of trying to tear down noble figures from time to time. I think it's just human nature," said Lewis, who met King at age 18 and spoke at the 1963 March on Washington just before King delivered his famous ''I Have a Dream" speech.
''He was not a saint, he was just another human being," Lewis said.
The King Center for Nonviolent Social Change -- now the site of his tomb -- was founded by Coretta Scott King soon after her husband's death.
In 1981, the center moved from her basement to its current address next to Ebenezer Baptist Church -- which has been designated a national historic site -- where King preached from 1960 to 1968.
Last month, the center's board of directors broached the possibility of selling it to the National Park Service.
Andrew Young, former UN ambassador, along with two of the Kings' children, Dexter and Yolanda, and King's sister, Christine King Farris -- all lifetime board members -- are in favor of it.
But Martin Luther King III and his sister, Bernice, object to any sale and are threatening legal action against Dexter King, who is chairman of the board.
''Tearing the center's unique and essential elements apart -- its physical memorial and its living legacy -- only diminishes them both, thereby weakening, not strengthening, the cause to which my father and mother gave so much," Martin Luther King III said at a news conference on Dec. 30.