Dexter Scott King, Younger Son of Martin Luther King Jr., Dies at 62

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Dexter Scott King, who as one of four children of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. worked closely with — but also frequently fought against — his siblings and the civil rights community over his father’s legacy, died on Monday at his home in Malibu, Calif. He was 62.

The King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta said the cause was prostate cancer.

Mr. King was the longtime chairman of the King Center, an institution established by his mother, Coretta Scott King, in 1968 to advance the vision of her husband. He was also the president of the King Estate, which managed licensing of his father’s image and likeness.

Both positions put him at the center of a shifting, byzantine web of alliances and conflicts with his siblings — in particular his brother, Martin Luther King III, and his younger sister, Bernice King — and with his father’s former allies. Lawsuits and public clashes were common as they jostled to shape and control the King legacy.

Mr. King was 7 years old when his father was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968. He and his brother, who was 10, were sitting on the floor at home in Atlanta watching TV when a news bulletin reporting the shooting interrupted their show.

They raced to their parents’ bedroom, where their mother was on the phone getting the same news from one of Dr. King’s associates.

A few months later, Mrs. King established the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta. She served as its president, chief executive and chairwoman until 1989, when she passed the reins to Dexter King.

He fought almost immediately with his mother, who had remained chief executive, and soon left the position. But they made amends, and he returned in 1994, by which time the center had suffered several years of declining income and poor management.

Mr. King quickly consolidated control over the center’s board, made a series of drastic budget and personnel cuts, and began looking for new sources of income for the institution.

Some of those efforts struck observers as avaricious, especially in light of the dignified subject matter. In the late 1990s, Mr. King led a lawsuit against CBS News for its use of taped excerpts from Dr. King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. They settled in 2000 for an undisclosed payment to the King Center.

A 1995 dispute with the National Park Service over plans for a welcome center adjacent to the King Center led him to close both the center and the King crypt to the public for months.

The park service wanted to build a conventional interpretive center; Mr. King wanted a multimedia theme park (which The Atlanta Journal-Constitution derided as “I Have a Dreamland”). The two sides eventually reached a compromise, and the center reopened.

Financial tensions were not the only matter that earned Mr. King negative public attention.

In 1997, he met with James Earl Ray, who had confessed to killing Dr. King. Mr. Ray had been sentenced to prison without a trial, but later recanted, saying that he was the fall guy for an expansive conspiracy linking the F.B.I., the mafia and the U.S. military. Mr. King came away from the meeting a believer, telling the news media that President Lyndon B. Johnson himself had been involved in his father’s assassination.

“Based on the evidence that I’ve been shown, I would think that it would be very difficult for something of that magnitude to occur on his watch and he not be privy to it,” Mr. King said in an interview with “Turning Point,” an ABC News program.

Once more, Mr. King faced criticism.

“Nothing connected to Martin Luther King Jr. is beyond Dexter King’s thirst for exploitation,” Cynthia Tucker, the editorial page editor of The Journal-Constitution, wrote in 1997, “even if it means helping his father’s killer go free.”

Still, his siblings and mother not only agreed that Mr. Ray was innocent but also mounted a yearslong legal effort to prove it. Mrs. King even lobbied President Bill Clinton for an investigation. One did follow, and in 2000 the Department of Justice concluded that Mr. Ray had acted alone.

The siblings were often at odds among themselves. In 2008, Martin and Bernice sued Dexter — and he countersued them — in a dispute over the King Center. In 2015, he and Martin sued Bernice, who had become the King Center chief executive in 2010, over control of their father’s Bible and Nobel Peace Prize. They settled in 2016, with the items going to the brothers, after former President Jimmy Carter stepped in to mediate.

If the siblings’ internecine conflicts seemed at times to upstage the unfolding of their father’s legacy, Mr. King said, it resulted from the trauma of their father’s murder, which had distorted the way they dealt with the outside world.

“I don’t want to say we built a wall around us, but we weren’t kidders anymore, as gregarious,” he wrote in “Growing Up King: An Intimate Memoir” (2003). “All of us developed this caution, this reserve, that affected our closest interpersonal relationships.”

Dexter Scott King was born on Jan. 30, 1961, in Atlanta. He was named for the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, in Montgomery, Ala., where his father had first emerged as a leader of the civil rights movement in the 1950s.

Following in the tracks of generations of King men, Mr. King attended Morehouse College, the historically Black institution in Atlanta, but left before graduating.

He married Leah Weber in 2013. She survives him, as do his brother, Martin, and younger sister, Bernice. His older sister, Yolanda King, died in 2007.

Mr. King moved to California in 2000 and stepped down as president and chief executive of the King Center in 2003. He became active in the film industry as a producer and creative adviser, and played his father in the TV movie “The Rosa Parks Story” (2002).

Mr. King was said to look, speak and gesture just like his father, but unlike his siblings he declined to follow Dr. King in his career choices. While Martin III became a noted civil rights leader, including a stint as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which Dr. King founded, and while Bernice became, like her father, a preacher, Dexter insisted that he was not a leader.

“I have never seen myself the way the media has portrayed me, as a leader,’‘ he told The New York Times in 1997. “I’m not trying to have a constituency. I’m not trying to be preachy or be on a pedestal. I’m not trying to effect change on that level, not because it’s not something that should be done, but that’s just not my best destiny.”



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