Martin Luther King Jr. and the “Coca Cola Scenario”

Sunday, August 28, we celebrate the anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. In the following guest post, Daniel T. Fleming, author of Living the Dream: The Contested History of Martin Luther King Jr. Day—available NOW wherever books and e-books are sold—writes about the history surrounding the copyright of the speech.

When Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963, the audience thought little about copyright law. Instead, King’s vision of a racially integrated nation captivated its attention. Clarence Jones, King’s speechwriter and attorney however, penned the crucial “©” onto copies of the speech and logged it with the US Copyright Office. This simple act reverberated into the 1990s when King’s family and civil rights activists fought for the right to claim King’s legacy. Although most Americans thought that King’s words belonged in the public domain, by law they belonged to the King Estate.

In 1994, Dexter Scott King, Martin and Coretta’s second son, became CEO of the King Center in Atlanta. Already the director of the King Estate, which owned King’s Intellectual Property, Dexter suddenly acquired enormous influence over his father’s legacy. He vigorously enforced the copyright to his father’s work to generate large profits. Under his leadership, the Estate restricted access to King’s words, then charged expensive fees to use them. 

Dexter packaged King’s legacy for the global market. He called this the “Coca Cola scenario.” As he explained to the King Holiday Commission, which organized the annual King Holiday, the King Center would “create the formula or the syrup and package it so that it can be disseminated [so] that King in Japan looks like King in Seattle.” All one had to do, like Coke, is water down the formula and add sweetener. This would bring “continuity” and “uniformity” to King’s message and make it more palatable. Such a vision horrified civil rights activists who argued that King’s legacy could not be simplified so easily. Yet as unpopular as Dexter’s vision was, it befitted the times. 

In 1995, neoliberal economics dominated the thinking of governments and businesses around the world. Neoliberal economic theory encouraged privatization, deregulation, and spending cuts. These measures would create massive profits for companies and budget surpluses for governments. With the foundation of the World Trade Organization and Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, the creation of a global market for Intellectual Property was in the making. Dexter saw the potential, writing in his autobiography that while “Land is the real estate of the past, Intellectual Property is the real estate of now.” And, in 1996, Atlanta would host the Olympics. Never was there a better time to sell King’s words.

“The King name would be a brand that, like all good brands, promoted not just a product (King’s words) but a lifestyle: nonviolence.”

To Dexter, this all made sense. The King Center had struggled for funding for decades. When Coretta stepped down from leading the Center, Dexter stepped up. He cut the King Center staff from 70 to 14 to save money and forced the King Holiday Commission to close, eliminating a body he thought competed with the Center for funding. He also attacked the National Parks Service (NPS) plan to build a visitors center on the King Historic Site in Atlanta. This was all in accord with neoliberal business practice: cut spending, reduce or eliminate competition, and deregulate government services (which he did by opposing the NPS efforts to curate King’s legacy). 

Dexter also used the brand logic of the time. The King name would be a brand that, like all good brands, promoted not just a product (King’s words) but a lifestyle: nonviolence.

By the 1990s, lifestyle brands like Nike and Coke were more important than products. Companies spent as little on manufacturing products as possible. Instead, they funneled money into advertising brands that sold dreams of a better life if the consumer purchased their product. Dexter too had a dream he could advertise: his father’s dream. Fortunately for him, the product—his father’s words—had already been created; this left him and the estate free to focus on marketing and selling. 

By 1996, King merchandise was available for sale at the Olympics. The King’s Center’s budget deficit had been neigh eliminated and in 1997, the King Estate put King’s papers on the market. In 2006, the City of Atlanta paid $32 million for them, yet the Estate kept the copyright. The Estate also charged the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial $800,000 to use King’s words on engravings. 

Dexter achieved his dream. Yet, what did he lose? The King Holiday Commission, a vibrant King Centre and its archive and library, and much goodwill. And, after all the marketing and privatization of King’s dream, there is little to suggest that we have arrived at a better understanding of his words and legacy. 

Daniel T. Fleming is lecturer at the University of New South Wales and an Honorary Post-Doctoral Fellow at Macquarie University.