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Widow’s memory may aid King Center finances

Mourners who saluted Coretta Scott King’s  life and legacy in recent days may help give a much-needed financial boost to the King Center at a time when its grounds are in disrepair and its future as an institution is uncertain.
A visitor to the King Center in Atlanta photographs a mural of the late Coretta Scott King on Feb. 8. Her death is expected to bring an infusion of donations to the financially troubled center. John Bazemore / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

After Coretta Scott King’s funeral this week, a stranger walked up to Andrew Young, a member of the King Center board, and handed him a $5,000 check written out to the institute established in memory of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Young and others believe that many of the mourners who saluted the widow’s life and legacy in recent days will give a much-needed financial boost to the King Center at a time when its grounds are in disrepair and its very future is uncertain.

“I think there’s just going to be an outpouring of gifts,” said Young, a former King aide, Atlanta mayor and U.N. ambassador. “People are good and hungry for an opportunity to do good.”

How such a boost could affect the direction of the King Center — in particular, how it will influence a split among the King children over whether to maintain family control over the institution or sell it to the National Park Service — is unclear.

On Thursday, Young said he was still waiting to see what the Kings’ four children planned to do. “They need a little time to breathe,” he said. “They need to have some time to come together.”

Coretta Scott King established the nonprofit King Center in 1968 as a memorial to her husband and the guardian of his legacy. In addition to holding seminars about the civil rights leader’s work, the center serves as an archive of King’s writings. It moved to its current site, an $8 million complex anchored by King’s tomb, in 1981.

Operating at a loss
But a 2004 report by the Park Service estimated the King Center needed $11.6 million to fix leaks in the reflecting pool that surrounds the tomb, repair collapsed drainage pipes and correct loose and exposed wiring.

Also, between 1996 and 2003, the King Center ran an operating loss of more than $1 million, and took out loans and lines of credit totaling at least $1.6 million to pay its bills, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last year.

The King Center has no endowment, relying instead on private donations, plus about $1 million a year from the Park Service for maintenance.

Because of the costs of upkeep, the King family has been considering selling the place to the Park Service, which already owns the King National Historic Site across the street and maintains Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King preached from 1960 to 1968, as well as the King birth home.

At the Martin Luther King Day observance in January, King Center president and chief executive Isaac Newton Farris Jr. pointed to a new direction for the center, saying it plans to transform itself from tourist attraction to think tank.

“We want the King Center to be engineers of society, not engineers of buildings,” he said.

So far, no comment
King Center officials this week did not return calls inquiring about its finances, including the size of its operating budget or the amount received in donations since Coretta Scott King’s death. Nor did it respond to requests for interviews with board members or Farris.

Young — the only person on the King Center’s nine-member lifetime board not related to the Kings — said he favors transferring the center to the Park Service. All four King children sit on the board, as did Coretta Scott King.

Of the nine board members, only Bernice King and Martin Luther King III opposed a transfer to the Park Service. At a news conference in December, the two said that they were concerned, among other things, that their father’s remains would be turned over to the federal government and that the center could lose its independent voice.

Some say the center should seize the momentum created by Coretta Scott King’s death.

Clinton calls the question
In fact, soon after her death, the King Center posted a small link at the top of its Web site for visitors to make online donations in her memory. And at her funeral, former President Clinton issued a challenge to the 10,000 mourners: “Atlanta, what is your responsibility for the future of the King Center?”

Morehouse College political science professor Hassan Crockett said the sentimental groundswell for Coretta Scott King represents a fundraising opportunity for the center that should not be missed.

“I hope the Atlanta community can take advantage of this. We give to so many causes, and this is a cause that is so necessary,” Crockett said.