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Why You Won’t See Any MLK Jr. Artifacts on Display at New African-American History Museum

Martin Luther King Jr., showing his medallion received from Mayor Wagner. Photo by Phil Stanziola/NYWT&S.

As the new Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture gears up for its grand opening on Sept. 24, museum-goers may notice a few things missing — memorabilia from the late civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr.

According to the Washington Post, no major artifacts of King’s will be on display at the museum when it opens. That’s because the civil rights leader’s surviving children (Bernice King, Dexter Scott King and Martin Luther King Jr. III) have yet to offer or loan any of their father’s prized possessions to the museum for exhibition. King’s eldest daughter, Yolanda, passed away in 2007.

The NMAAHC’s director of curatorial affairs, Rex Ellis, and others were invited to Atlanta to meet with King’s children in January. There, he carefully turned the pages of the reverend’s traveling Bible, which was last seen during the second inauguration of President Barack Obama. King’s historic Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to him in 1964, was also carefully examined.

However, the 30-minute meeting concluded without a loan, gift or any other promises from the King children, the Washington Post reports. The civil rights leader’s worn Bible and Nobel Peace Prize were both placed back into a bank vault for safe keeping.

“It’s outrageous,” Clarence Jones, the former King attorney who filed the copyright for Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, said of there being no artifacts of the reverend’s to feature at the new museum. “This is the Smithsonian. This is not just another party. This is one of the most important institutions now in the 21st century.”

“And this is probably the greatest civil rights leader in the 20th century,” he continued. “I find it shameful and I’m sad.”

Jones doesn’t blame the museum, but instead points the finger at King’s three children. Bernice, Dexter and Martin III have gained quite the reputation among historians and filmmakers for being “litigious” and charging parties excessive licensing fees to use their father’s words and likeness, the publication reports.

For instance, the foundation that built King’s monument on the National Mall in 2011 were asked to fork over $800,000 to complete the project. The Washington Post reports that the King children even went after former Atlanta mayor and close friend of their father’s, Andrew Young, for using materials featuring the civil rights icon in a documentary without compensating them first. The trio filed a lawsuit against Young in 2013 and tried to have him removed from the board of the King Center for Nonviolent and Social Change. The case was later dismissed, according to the paper.

The King children have repeatedly sued each other, too. Their latest, and messiest, legal battle came when Dexter and Martin III took Bernice to court over which one of them had the authority to sell their father’s traveling Bible and Nobel Peace Prize. Per the Washington Post, former President Jimmy Carter was brought in to mediate the situation, but a judge ultimately ruled the brothers had the power to auction off their father’s possessions.

“I could not be more cynical, more jaded in this subject,” said David G. Garrow, historian and author of “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.” “Given the family’s behavior this last 20 years, they’re unlikely [to] have any interest in sharing [with the museum] without a large upfront payment.”

The Washington Post notes that the museum has not asked to borrow any artifacts from the family and prefers to receive permanent works that don’t need to be returned. Even if the memorabilia was up for purchase, museum curators said they wouldn’t be able to do so because they simply don’t have the funds.

General manager of the King estate Phillip Jones said Thursday that the family is still open to the artifacts being displayed at the museum.

“It’s an extraordinary museum and the family believes that, certainly,” Jones said in an interview. “And we think it would be wonderful if these items were there. We just haven’t been able to focus on it.”

Dexter King later requested that Jones only speak on behalf of the estate and remove all references to “family” and “we” from the previously issued statement, the Washington Post reports.

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