"Atlanta, what is your responsibility for the future of the King Center?" former President Bill Clinton chided the well-dressed crowd at the funeral of Coretta Scott King last week. "What are you going to do?"
It was a great question, a needed prod to the civic conscience at a time when Atlanta was not merely grieving the death of one of its most revered figures, but was also basking a bit in the world's attention, proud to be recognized as the hometown of one of the most important American figures of the 20th century.
"So what will happen to the legacy of Martin Luther King and Coretta King?" Clinton asked us, expanding upon his challenge before a national TV audience. "Will it continue to stand for peace and nonviolence and anti-poverty, and civil rights and human rights?"
Again, a very good question. So . . . what are we going to do?
The first people who have to answer that question, though, are Martin and Coretta King's four children. Yolanda, Martin III, Dexter and Bernice hold the future of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in their hands.
And harsh as it sounds, nobody in Atlanta, no corporations anywhere in the country, ought to write a check to the King Center until the King children decide for themselves just how important their parents' legacy really is to them.
If it's truly important, the four children will follow the selfless examples of their parents and agree to surrender control of the center to an independent board, professional managers and experts capable not merely of preserving the center, but of expanding its mission to meets its potential.
If they take that step — if the direct heirs of the King legacy do their part to meet Clinton's challenge — the rest of Atlanta ought to step forward with them, donating the time, money and energy needed to rebuild the center and revitalize its outreach.
In his comments, Clinton alluded to how difficult it must have been for the King children to grow up in the shadow of such an important father, particularly when that shadow was pretty much all they knew of him. Those gracious remarks constituted a kind gesture of sympathy from Clinton, and they are not without truth.
It is also true, however, that in the poor neighborhoods within three or four miles of the King Center, you could quickly find 100 children facing far more difficult lives than the King children faced, with none of the offsetting opportunities they enjoyed.
There are also children in the West Bank, in Iraq, in much of sub-Saharan Africa, in Egypt and elsewhere who could benefit from the type of leadership that the King Center could, and should, provide in transforming their lives and those of their countrymen.
In other words, the challenge facing both the King children and King's hometown goes well beyond merely honoring the past accomplishments of King and his wife, although that is undoubtedly important. Nor is it merely a question of enhancing the building and grounds of the King Center, or improving the exhibits there. Transfer of the property to the National Park Service could and should accomplish that relatively simple goal.
Beyond such mundane concerns, the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change has a wonderful story to tell and lessons to teach, and a world of places that could benefit from those lessons.
After all, nonviolent social action is not some theoretical hothouse notion that wilts under real-life challenges; it is a proven approach that can and has changed the world, particularly when applied by brave people as willing to sacrifice themselves as anybody who ever donned a uniform.
In South Africa, the great Nelson Mandela borrowed from King's example in his campaign to dismantle apartheid, achieved largely if not exclusively through peaceful means. To implement the civil rights movement for which he is honored, King himself borrowed tactics and philosophy from the successful effort of Mahatma Gandhi to peacefully win India's independence from Great Britain.
More recently, peaceful revolutions in the Ukraine and the nation of Georgia have demonstrated that nonviolence retains its power to challenge repression and topple tyrants.
A rejuvenated King Center, building on the prestige and credibility of its namesake, can play a critically important role in meeting the challenges of our time. After all, the only alternative to nonviolent social change is violent social change.
The first step, though, belongs to the children.
Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor. His column appears Thursdays and Mondays.
© 2006 Atlanta Journal Constitution