Content Is King

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
March 16 1997 3:30 AM

Content Is King

Dexter King is a King for the '90s.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

After the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, a host of civil-rights leaders made a grab for his mantle. The Rev. Joseph Lowery laid claim to it. The Rev. Jesse Jackson waved the bloody shirt. Widow Coretta Scott King established the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change Inc. Martin King III made a brief stab at a political career. But the person who has capitalized most on the legacy is King's younger son, 36-year-old Dexter King.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

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Dexter emerged as the King family spokesman in early 1995, when he succeeded Coretta as president and CEO of the King Center. He inaugurated his tenure with a call to arms: "My father delivered political freedom, and I would like to deliver economic freedom. ... I'm calling home all those freedom fighters who marched with my father. Dexter Scott King is going to be there with you this time, and we will make it to the promised land."

The promised land, as it turned out, looks like Graceland. One of Dexter's first acts as president was to meet the caretakers of Elvis' image to learn how to market King like the King. He hasn't let up since. In the last four months alone, the King family has:

    • signed a contract with Oliver Stone, who plans a movie about the assassination (just imagine the scene where J. Edgar Hoover, dolled up in tutu and lip gloss, orders the King hit);
    • made a gigantic deal with Time Warner to market King's speeches and writings; and
    • sued CBS, alleging that the network had violated copyright laws by excerpting the "I Have a Dream" speech in a documentary.

In February, the family also made headlines by announcing that it supported James Earl Ray's motion for a trial. Ray, who pleaded guilty to King's assassination without trial, is dying of liver disease. He claims he was a patsy. King family members hint at a grand and sinister conspiracy.

Dexter, it seems, has revived the dream. Not that dream, but the American dream that anyone can make a fortune. In the '90s version, all it takes is a catalog of marketable data, vigorous application of copyright law, the financial muscle of a multinational media conglomerate, a few good lawyers, and frequent talk-show appearances.

Talking with Dexter King is a disconcerting, demoralizing experience. Disconcerting because his voice has the same intonation, the same accent, the same creamy richness as his father's. Demoralizing because his message is so distant from his father's. Martin spoke the language of protest, sacrifice, spirituality. Beneath Dexter's stentorian tones and rhythmic tide one hears only managementese. "It makes logical sense to align ourselves with a major player in the industry." "We are moving from the hardware side of the business to the software side." His "vision," he assures me, is "holistic."

When Dexter took over the King Center, the Atlanta-based nonprofit needed help. Coretta was a reliable liberal mascot, but she foundered as an executive. The center had become a hodgepodge of unconnected programs--a day-care center, a library, a nonviolence training school. It alienated sponsors and neighbors and overshot its budget, amassing a $600,000 annual deficit by the early '90s. "The programmatic impact of the King Center across the last decade has been somewhere between small and nonexistent," says David Garrow, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his King biography, Bearing the Cross.

Dexter, who had spent most of his professional career as a music producer and promoter, was the one who realized that the family was sitting on a valuable asset: the collected works of Martin Luther King Jr. These were 24-carat golden oldies.

If content is king, Dexter reasoned, then King should be content. Consider the Time Warner licensing deal, which will generate as much as $10 million a year for the King estate. It covers every angle a young media entrepreneur could dream of: highbrow nonfiction (the first comprehensive collection of King's sermons); innovative nonfiction (a King "autobiography" cobbled together from his writings); audiotapes of King speeches; high-tech (a fancy civil-rights Web site); and even a little snack for Dexter's ego (the young man's memoirs, which are to include his thoughts on health and nutrition). Dexter and his business partner and college friend Phillip Jones have also accelerated licensing of Martin Luther King Jr. products: You can now buy "Keep the Dream Alive" checks and tasteful King statuettes. (Countering a question about tackiness, Dexter says, "You should see what we turned down--'I Have a Dream' ice cream, Martin Luther King pocketknives.") Dexter and Jones are also seeking financing for their pièce de résistance, the King Dream Center, a $50-million interactive museum complete with virtual-reality games. Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Cynthia Tucker has dubbed it "I Have a Dreamland."