King, Parks and Malcolm X were not wealthy people in life, so their families have a right to be concerned about the financial value of their famous relatives' legacy, said john a. powell, director at the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California, Berkeley.
"Somebody is going to make money off their names," powell said. "You just hope people do it with a certain amount of dignity."
Few would say that's happened. Many point to the King family's public feuds as evidence that it has not.
"To be fighting over money and profit is to dishonor everything their father stood for," said Deborah E. McDowell, director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies and Alice Griffin professor of English at the University of Virginia.
Most families only have to deal with a parent's estate once. But when the parent in question was a beloved historic figure, there regularly are new issues to address, said lawyers Andrew and Danielle Mayoras, who wrote a book about famous estate battles.
"There can always be a new project that the family is approached with or a new item someone decides to sell," said Andrew Mayoras, who specializes in probate matters. "So yes, for these families we do think it's going to keep going on and on, sadly."
Many American families go through the same thing, said Danielle Mayoras, an estate attorney. "Sometimes they are fighting over the Christmas ornaments instead of diaries that might be very valuable, but oftentimes what we see is that it's not the value of the item, it's the sentimental attachment or the emotion that's involved," she said.
Martin III, Dexter and Bernice King have fought in court for years, going after their father's friends and fellow activists in addition to each other. The family has sent numerous cease-and-desist letters to stop various uses of King's written work and image, and followed up with court action if they weren't satisfied with the results.