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Social Studies

Kingís Ransom

By Vincent Williams | Posted 6/21/2006

When I was an undergrad at College Park, I was fortunate enough to take a class in the African American Studies Department called "The Economics of Race." Taught by one of the most brilliant people Iíve ever met in my life, the late economist and scholar Rhonda Williams (no relation), the main thrust of the class was that issues of race are, at their core, really issues of money. The class provided a life-changing revelation and Williams shifted the manner in which I would think about race for the rest of my life. To paraphrase another great, albeit fictional, economist, Det. Lester Freamon from The Wire, if you talk about race and follow racism, you just find racists, but if you follow the money, well, slavery, sharecropping, affirmative action, welfare, the military-industrial complex, the prison-industrial complex, immigration, hip-hop, etc., come into the equation, too. And the newest racially mathematical component on my mind is the upcoming auction of the King papers.

Hereís a quick recap: For years, the family of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has tried to sell his notes, manuscripts, speeches, etc., to an academic library or museum to no avail. When Coretta Scott King died a few months ago, this collection became even more important, because additional documents were found in her basement, including historical gems such as an annotated copy of Kingís "Letter From Birmingham Jail" and what scholars have called the earliest surviving copy of his theological writings. The entire collection has been appraised at between $15 million and $30 million. Unable to find an institutional buyer at that price, the King family has decided to auction them off with the legendary auction house Sothebyís on June 30. With an action like this, the fear is the highest bidder may restrict access to the writings, and, thus, a collection of the most important cultural artifacts of the 20th century could be lost.

Some have argued that the King family should acknowledge the importance of these papers and just donate them to a library or museum, much like the Kennedys and most presidents have done with their writings. I find that an incredibly unfair comparison. Letís be real here: The Kennedys were rich before John F. Kennedy became president and theyíre still rich. Itís easy to donate stuff when youíre rich. The King family isnít, so one does not equal the other. As far as ex-presidents and their charity goes, well, they can make a mint with the business opportunities that being an ex-president opens up for them. Clinton made $7.5 million last year just from speaking engagements. So, again, apples and oranges. Or, to put it another way, economics.

And the bottom line is, he was their dad. King is a symbol and an icon to the rest of us, but, ultimately, he was a father who stepped into the limelight and sacrificed himself for the rest of us. I mentioned this when Coretta Scott King died (Social Studies, Feb. 8), and itís no less true for Martin Luther King Jr.: He didnít have to do anything. King had a Ph.D., great family connections, even greater career opportunities, and a fine wife. He could have easily just laid in the cut, stacked dough, and lived a pretty carefree life. But he didnít. He put himself out there for all of us and got assassinated for his troubles. He wasnít able to provide a financial legacy for his family because he was too busy providing a cultural legacy for the rest of us. So I donít have any beef with his children trying to tap into some of that missed financial legacy.

Now, it would seem to me that, as beneficiaries of Kingís cultural legacy, some of us should step up, gladly pay the $30 million, and then donate the papers to a library. Black billionaires--who probably wouldnít exist if not for King--such as Oprah Winfrey or BET founder Robert Johnson immediately spring to mind, but Iím sure they get tired of people always begging them, and, frankly, I think it would be much more meaningful if ordinary folks who have benefited from Kingís legacy did it.

Hereís my thought: At least 60,000 people should write a check for at least $500. I know that seems like a lot of people and a lot of money, but, just to put it in perspective, the man who officiated Mrs. Kingís funeral, Bishop Eddie Long, has a church with over 25,000 members. As far as the money itself goes, again, letís be real--while everyone has benefited from Kingís sacrifice, I donít think itís outlandish to say the African-American community has benefited more than most and, according to several studies, we have more than $7.5 billion in buying power. I could take a cheap shot about all the money weíve spent on Cristal over the past 10 years just to have them turn their noses up at hip-hop, but, in the spirit of community, Iíll admit that, just in the last two months or so, Iíve blown almost $500 on comics, action figures, music, and DVDs. Five hundred dollars is not that much. And thatís just from black folks. From all the heartfelt ads in February and "very special episodes" of our favorite TV programs, we all loved King, right?

Now, the words "Vince" and "organized" arenít often used in the same sentence, so itíd probably be best if you talked to your church, fraternity/sorority, book club, jazzercise class, whatever, about putting it together. We can give it to the NAACP or Urban League, or, hell, in a pinch Iíll collect the checks and weíll get the King papers. We can do this. Look, Iíd much rather be writing about my current obsession with the music Elton John made with legendary Philadelphia producer Thom Bell, or why casting Beyoncť Knowles as Deena Jones misses the whole point of Dreamgirls, but it is what it is. Sixty thousand checks for $500. I know it sounds crazy, but I have it on very good authority that having a dream can lead to great things.

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