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Are heirs turning King into huckster?

ATLANTA — The ad begins with footage of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have A Dream" speech and morphs into a digitally altered view of him speaking to an empty National Mall.

French telecommunications giant Alcatel says it used the image to convey its message of making connections, complete with the voice-over slogan: "Before you can inspire . . . you must first connect."

But many who revere King and all he stood for blame his heirs for selling out his legacy and turning the patron saint of the civil rights movement into just another pitchman.

"The image is theirs to huckster as they choose, and the rest of us are entitled to our opinion," said Julian Bond, who marched with King in the 1960s and serves as chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"My opinion is this man was not a salesman for commercial interests in life and he ought not be made one in death."

A second company, Cingular Wireless, is using King's "Free at last, free at last" from the same speech as part of a television campaign called "Soundbites" that also features quotes from figures as varied as William Shakespeare, Winston Churchill and cartoon character Homer Simpson.

King's family retains full control of his speeches and image and approved the final versions of both campaigns.

King's widow, Coretta Scott King, and his son, Dexter, who leads the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change Inc., did not return messages seeking comment Thursday. And neither company would say how much they paid.

"Dr. King is not here to protect himself from his own relatives," fumed David J. Garrow, an Emory University historian who won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for his King biography. He said he was "perturbed and upset" by the Alcatel campaign.

"The family's intention for several years now has been to maximize their income from use of him to whatever extent possible," he said.

Garrow said the family also risks diminishing King's message if future generations come to regard the civil rights leader as merely another corporate shill.

"How does this sort of usage in the long run affect the way people are going to think?" he said.

An Alcatel spokesman said the company has received "fantastic feedback" from the King ads, part of a series that will give way to other memorable figures, sports events and music.

"We're in a very positive way extending Dr. King's message into 2001, and that's something we're very proud of," said Brian Murphy, a spokesman for Alcatel USA, based in Plano, Texas.

Clay Owen, a spokesman for Atlanta-based Cingular, a joint venture between BellSouth Corp. and SBC Communications, said King helps the company achieve its campaign goal of "increasing self-expression."

Garrow said King was never particularly interested in making money during his lifetime, donating the $54,000 he received from his Nobel Prize to civil rights work.

"There is a tremendous feeling that this is too much," Bond said of the King advertising. "Some things ought to be sacred."

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King Center for Nonviolent Social Change Inc.: