ATLANTA -- On the eve of what would have been Martin Luther King Jr.'s 77th birthday, his legacy is under attack and its greatest defender is unable to speak.
King's widow, Coretta Scott King, is recovering from a stroke that partially paralyzed her, and on Saturday made only her first public appearance since last year's King holiday observance, smiling from a wheelchair at the Salute to Greatness Dinner.
The couple's four children are divided over whether to sell the family-run center that promotes King's teachings.
And the spotlight is again hitting King's more human side in a new book that alleges extramarital affairs and a nasty split with a civil rights colleague, the Rev. Jesse Jackson -- a story that threatened to overshadow King's humanitarian contributions on the 20th anniversary of the King National Holiday.
Despite all the distractions, those who stood by King's side as soldiers in the civil rights movement say the memory of the self-named "Drum Major for Justice" is untouchable.
"Dr. King's legacy is as sound as a rock," said Tyrone Brooks, a Georgia state representative from Atlanta who worked alongside King in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the SCLC, which King co-founded in 1957.
Rumors of womanizing by King and feuds with Jackson and others have long been popular topics in media and books like "And the Walls Came Tumbling Down," the memoir written decades ago by King's former right-hand man, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy.
Historian Taylor Branch's book "At Canaan's Edge," released last week, is the latest. In the book, the third in Branch's series detailing King's life and the civil rights movement, the author writes of a longstanding affair King allegedly revealed to Coretta Scott King the year before his 1968 assassination.
Branch, who has not been available recently for interviews, also writes of heated arguments King had with some of his closest colleagues, including Jackson.
U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a lifelong civil rights activist interviewed by Branch for the book, said King's stature will always make him a target.
"We get in the habit of trying to tear down noble figures from time to time. I think it's just human nature," said Lewis, who met King at age 18 and spoke at the 1963 March on Washington just before King delivered his famous "I Have A Dream" speech.
"He was not a saint, he was just another human being," Lewis said.
The King Center for Nonviolent Social Change -- site of his tomb -- was founded by Coretta Scott King soon after her husband's death. In 1981, the center moved from her basement to its current address next to the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King preached from 1960 to 1968.
Last month, the center's board of directors broached the possibility of selling it to the National Park Service.
Former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, along with two of the Kings' children, Dexter and Yolanda, and King's sister, Christine King Farris -- all lifetime board members -- are in favor of it.
But Martin Luther King III and his sister Bernice object to any sale and are threatening legal action against Dexter, who is chairman of the board. Bernice and Martin III say they should have done more to prevent the center from falling more than $11 million into disrepair.
"Tearing the center's unique and essential elements apart -- its physical memorial and its living legacy -- only diminishes them both, thereby weakening, not strengthening, the cause to which my father and mother gave so much," Martin Luther King III said at a news conference on Dec. 30.
The Rev. Joseph Lowery, one of the SCLC's co-founders, argues that it is that organization that has carried on King's work.
"His organization is the chief proponent of his message and his work," Lowery said. "You can't reduce his legacy to brick and mortar."
Neither can it be controlled or sold, Lowery added. King's life, spirit and teachings, "all of these things belong to the people and the ages," he said.
Losing a father and husband has made the King family hold fast to their patriarch, but King was a citizen of the world and his message was delivered in the public domain, Lewis said.
"Those of us who participated in the movement with him and followed his leadership and his vision and saw how he grew and reached out to the larger community would want to say he is much bigger than his birth family," Lewis said. "His message is not something they own."
On the Net:
King Center: http://www.thekingcenter.org/