Wednesday, April 4 marks a half century since the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
In the pantheon of American heroes, King stands alongside George Washington and Abraham Lincoln as one of the most iconic and important leaders in the nation's history. Just as Washington helped establish the new nation and Lincoln helped hold the Union together during a devastating civil war, King articulated a vision of what the nation could, should and must be—a diverse and inclusive republic committed to liberty, equality, opportunity, and justice for all. Although it is self-evident that the United States has still fallen far short of achieving his vision, King's monumental “I Have a Dream Speech,” delivered on the National Mall in August 1963, remains the defining speech of modern American history.
Amazingly, King was only 39 at the time of his death. To put that in context, King was four years younger than Washington when he took command of the Continental Army in 1775 and 13 years younger than Lincoln when he became president in 1861. Moreover, King first emerged as a leader of national importance at age 26, when he helped lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott in December 1955. Thus, between the ages of 26 and 39—a time when the vast majority of people are only beginning to find their way in the world—King challenged the racial and class hierarchy of American life and in the process helped redefine the meaning of the American Dream.
In light of what the nation lost on April 4, 1968, it is understandable that the media will focus this week on the circumstances of King’s death. Controversy has lingered over the assassination from the moment the deadly shot was fired on the evening of April 4, 1968. In March 1969 an ex-convict named James Earl Ray pleaded guilty to shooting King, but Ray subsequently recanted his confession, and continued to deny his guilt until the day he died in prison in 1998.
Nevertheless, multiple government investigations have concluded that Ray was indeed the assassin. In the 1970s, the House Select Committee on Assassinations conducted a comprehensive investigation into King's assassination, the full findings of which are available at the National Archives website. The committee concluded that in murdering King, Ray may have had assistance from some of his associates, but the committee found no evidence of government involvement in the assassination. Two decades later, in response to Ray’s claims of innocence and renewed allegations of a government conspiracy, the Clinton Justice Department mounted its own investigation, but found no credible evidence to undermine the findings of the congressional investigators. Nevertheless, leading civil rights figures like Congressman John Lewis and former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young continue to insist that King died as the result of a major conspiracy that extended far beyond James Earl Ray and his circle of associates.
The assassination debate tends to overshadow one of the most disappointing developments in the wake of King’s death: the ongoing restriction on the public dissemination of King’s words and images. On YouTube you can see in its entirety FDR’s 1941 Pearl Harbor speech, John Kennedy’s 1961 Inaugural Address, and Ronald Reagan’s 1987 Berlin Wall speech as well as countless other historical addresses. But King’s speeches are much harder to find, and the versions that appear on YouTube tend to be truncated or of poor quality. The reason is because the King estate has exercised its copyright in MLK’s speeches and writings, thus significantly restricting their public dissemination. For example, in a 1999 lawsuit brought by the King estate against the CBS television network, the 11th Circuit reversed a district court’s ruling that King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” fell within the public domain. King was a private citizen, not a government official, and thus he retained copyright in his speeches and writings. The legal consequences of that fact have been far-reaching. For example, in making the 2014 film “Selma,” the director Ava DuVernay had to paraphrase King’s words because the family had already licensed the movie rights to Steven Spielberg.
King’s speeches will not enter the public domain until January 1, 2039, more than 20 years from now. Two decades is simply too long to wait for King’s words to become as omnipresent as Lincoln’s. Indeed, although King has been dead for 50 years, the nation needs his message now more than ever. As in King’s lifetime, the United States remains one of the most unequal societies in the world among rich countries. A 2017 study by the World Economic Forum ranked the United States 23rd out of 30 wealthy countries in terms of "income, health, poverty, and sustainability."
Racial fault lines also still run deep. For example, a 2016 PRRI survey found that 65% of whites view police shootings of African American men as isolated incidents whereas 81% of blacks see them as part of a pattern of racially discriminatory treatment. Not coincidentally, polling data reveals that Americans believe that race relations have sunk to their lowest point in generations. In 2016 the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 74% of Americans described race relations as “bad,” the highest figure in the poll’s history. A December 2017 Pew Research Center study found that 60% of Americans believe that race relations have worsened since President Trump’s election in November 2016. Similarly, a Washington Post poll found that 82% of Americans described 2017 as a bad year for race relations, one of the few issues on which Republicans and Democrats agree.
Words alone will not resolve underlying issues of inequality, injustice, and racial conflict in 21st century America, but they will at least help frame where we have been and where we must go. In many respects, America in 2018 is even more polarized and class stratified than it was in 1968. King’s provocative message—which combined a call for racial unity with a demand that America become a better, more egalitarian and more just nation—has never been more relevant and more pressing than it is today.
I am no copyright lawyer, but if it is at all possible for the government to purchase the copyright in King’s speeches from the King estate, then Congress should make the effort. In 1883, the federal government paid more than $100,000 to the family of Robert E. Lee to claim lawful title to the Custis-Lee estate, the site of Arlington National Cemetery. If the U.S. government could come up with funds to pay the family of the most famous Confederate general for title to Arlington Cemetery, then certainly Congress can come up with a sufficient offer to compensate the King family fully and fairly for the right to disseminate King’s immortal speeches. The words of Lincoln, Jefferson, and Madison are ubiquitous in American life. King’s words should be as well. Whatever it costs to make that happen, it's worth it.