It is fair to say that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a wise man whose words still guide and shape our society today, fifty years after his untimely death. He left behind an inspiring legacy for the American people, but what did he leave for his own family? The answer is surprising, and unlocks yet another lesson that we can learn from him on this special day set aside to honor his memory.
At the time of his death, MLK, Jr. could have been considered a relatively wealthy man. As the acknowledged leader of the civil rights movement, he had authored five books, delivered hundreds of speeches (for which he was frequently paid) and had won the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, which came with an award of $54,600 (equal to nearly a half-million dollars by today’s standards.) That accumulation of wealth was rare for an African American man, and could have provided well for his family.
But Dr. King was not interested in accumulating a personal fortune. His dedication to the movement led him to donate most of his earnings to advancing the cause of civil rights. He firmly believed in the distribution of assistance to the needy. Various accounts of his life state that his wife, Coretta Scott King, repeatedly urged him to invest some of the Nobel Prize money for the benefit of their four children, but Dr. King felt that as long as they were making ends meet, the funds should be put to “better” use.
The result of this stance was unfortunate for his family, to say the least. Despite his many predictions of his own early demise, Dr. King died without significant financial assets, and without leaving a will, a condition known as intestate or intestacy. Famously, singer Harry Belafonte led a campaign to raise money to guarantee that the children were supported and educated. Mrs. King was left to govern the estate, which has continued to generate income throughout the decades. Unfortunately, without specific direction from Dr. King, the children disagreed about the distribution of the funds, and a lengthy court battle ensued, not being settled until 2009. This dispute over money fractured a very close-knit family, and tarnished the legacy of harmony that Dr. King strove so valiantly to create.
The lesson for us here is not to be uncharitable, but rather to shepherd our funds wisely. Dr. King’s vision of freedom extended far beyond his immediate family, but that is not true for most of us. In most states it costs very little to draw up a personal will. There are countless resources, from do-it-yourself kits to online applications to low-cost legal aide, as well as the traditional estate planning attorneys; in short, anyone can craft a will expressing their personal desires about how their funds should be distributed after death. It is usually a simple process, and it alleviates years of potential heartache for the heirs.
The Freedom Budget – https://archive.org/details/freedomBudgetForAllAmericansBudgetingOurResources1966-1975To
The Motley Fool – https://www.fool.com/personal-finance/2013/01/21/martin-luther-kings-financial-dream.aspx