To the surprise of many, Epic Games added a new mode to Fortnite last week celebrating the legacy of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the man who led it, Martin Luther King, Jr. But Bernice King, the civil rights icon’s daughter, has since distanced herself from the event. It all points back to long-standing disputes over how King’s legacy is used.
Epic released the new mode, called March Through Time, last Thursday just ahead of the March on Washington’s 53rd anniversary over the weekend. Between loading screens talking about headshots and players dressed up as Superman and Rick and Morty’s Rick Sanchez dancing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, the well-intentioned educational initiative nevertheless raised questions about exactly who was involved and how it was put together. Within 24-hours of March Through Time going live, Epic went so far as to disable all emotes in the mode outside of those specifically designed for the occasion.
Hours after it went live, the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change Twitter account wrote, “The King Center does not license Dr. King’s intellectual property, and, therefore, was not involved in any decisions concerning the endeavor with TIME Inc and PlayStation/Fortnite. These licensing decisions are made by Intellectual Properties Management (IPM).”
Bernice King, the Center’s CEO, then quote-tweeted that message, adding, “Decisions around licensing my father’s intellectual property are outside of my personal purview.”
The company stated the event was a collaboration with Time magazine, its partners, and contributions from “American Family Insurance, the DuSable Museum of African American History, and the Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.” It was also based on an existing virtual tour Time had put together with the DuSable Museum the year prior. King, The Center, and DuSable all did not return a request for comment.
The Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr. is controlled by Bernice King and her two brothers, Dexter King and Martin Luther King III. All three have long appeared at odds with one another over how their father’s legacy and intellectual property would be used. While Bernice runs the non-profit MLK Center set up by King’s late wife, Coretta Scott King, Dexter is the chief executive for the for-profit estate, and also runs Intellectual Properties Management, the entity which licenses King’s work. Despite being set up to continue spreading King’s legacy and teachings, the Center remains separate from the Estate. The Estate, meanwhile, directly owns King’s work and most recently cut a deal to turn publishing rights for its literary archive over to HarperCollins.
In 2015, the MLK Estate sued the MLK Center over the misuse of intellectual and physical property, and sued Bernice for refusing to hand over King’s Bible and Nobel Peace Prize which the Estate was looking to potentially sell. The first lawsuit was quickly dropped while the second concluded a year later, with a judge ordering the items released back to the Estate.
This isn’t the first time Bernice King has tried to separate herself from the actions of the MLK Estate and its intellectual property rights management firm. A notorious 2018 Super Bowl ad used a recording from King’s “Drum Major Instinct” to try and sell Dodge Ram pickup trucks. It was immediately blasted, with many calling out the disrespectfulness as well as the dissonance in light of King’s critiques of capitalism. Bernice and the MLK Center disowned that corporate collaboration immediately as well.