Farris, Isaac Newton, Jr.
Isaac Newton Farris, Jr.
President and CEO of The King Center
In September of 2005 Isaac Newton Farris, Jr., was named president and chief executive officer (CEO) of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change, commonly known as The King Center. The nephew of Dr. King, Farris had spent the previous five years as chief operating officer (COO) of the center. Established in 1968 by Coretta Scott King as a "living memorial dedicated to the advancement of the legacy" of Dr. King, the center came to include the Freedom Hall Complex, the Ebenezer Baptist Church, Dr. King's birth home, and Dr. and Mrs. King's crypt. The King Center drew nearly one million visitors annually, making it the most visited cultural and tourist attraction in the southeast United States. As head of the center, Farris directed its activities and often acted as spokesperson for the King family.
Raised in the King Family Tradition
Born on April 13, 1962, in Atlanta, Georgia, Isaac Newton Farris was not quite six when Martin Luther King, Jr., was slain. His memories of his uncle were as a playmate. Only later did he come to appreciate the significance of Dr. King's contributions to American society. Nevertheless Farris grew up at the very center of the Civil Rights Movement, nurtured by the activism of the extended King and Farris families. His mother, Christine King Farris, Dr. King's oldest sibling, was a professor of education at her alma mater Spelman College in Atlanta. Isaac Newton Farris, Sr., was an entrepreneur, the owner of Farris Color Visions in Atlanta, and the author of Scenes of Black Atlanta: A Pictorial Guide. Like his uncle before him, Farris attended Morehouse College in Atlanta. He graduated in 1985 with a major in pre-law. His younger sister, Angela Farris-Watkins, attended Spelman and eventually joined her mother on the Spelman faculty as a psychology professor.
Following graduation Farris went to work for his cousin, Martin Luther King III, Dr. King's eldest son and a commissioner of Fulton County, which encompassed the Atlanta metropolitan area. Farris functioned as King's campaign manager and chief of staff until 1995 when he was named COO of The King Center.
The King Center opened at its present location, within Atlanta's Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site, in 1980 at a cost of $8 million. The nonprofit organization regularly employed King family members and was perpetually short on cash. Dexter Scott King, Dr. King's youngest son, was elected president and CEO in 1994 and proceeded to cut programs and staffing.
Appointed CEO in Family Coup
In August of 2005 The King Center board voted Dexter King out and Martin Luther King III became chairman of the board. One month later, however, Dexter appointed eight new board members. They voted him back in as chairman and Farris as president and CEO. Farris also joined the board, which included his mother as vice chair. In a press release announcing Farris's appointment, quoted in the Atlanta Inquirer, Dexter King said: "the Center's board election of Isaac Newton Farris as president and chief executive officer will strengthen our capacity to act more effectively. Isaac brings an insightful understanding of my father's teachings, combined with knowledge of The King Center's history and a vision for its unique potential. We expect significant progress in the Center's development under his leadership." Meanwhile Martin and Bernice King accused Dexter of abusing his power, and Farris was forced to counter media reports that the King family lived off the funds raised by the center. He pointed out that only he and Dexter received salaries, reportedly in the mid-$100,000 range.
The direction and future of The King Center had been the focus of a long-standing dispute among Dr. King's children. Following the death of Coretta Scott King in February of 2006, the board was faced with making their own decisions rather than simply carrying out Mrs. King's wishes. Although founded to promote King's legacy of nonviolent social transformation, the organization had been strongly criticized for not living up to its promise and, in fact, for not doing very much at all.
In February of 2005 the National Park Service (NPS) had reported that the center required $11 million in structural and mechanical repairs to meet city and state building codes. Isaac Farris, along with Dexter King and his sister Yolanda, board member Andrew Young, and Georgia Congressman John Lewis, favored turning over the maintenance and control of the buildings and grounds to the NPS, which was already contributing about $1 million annually to the center. Martin Luther King III and Bernice King feared that the center would lose its independence. As of 2007, although discussions were still ongoing, it appeared less likely that the NPS would take over The King Center.
Strove to Maintain King's Legacy
In April of 2007 Farris learned for the first time of a folder containing notes, letters, and speeches written by Dr. King that were about to be auctioned off. As a representative of the King estate Farris blocked the sale. The family had recently sold a large collection of King's papers to the city of Atlanta for $32 million, which in turn donated the collection to Morehouse College where a civil and human rights museum was being proposed. Farris told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "We are going to get the papers…I believe we will be calling Morehouse and telling them that we are sending over 25 additional documents." Farris told Contemporary Black Biography that, although the center and the family had at times been criticized for claiming ownership of King's writings and correspondence, "Everything that we do he did. He copyrighted everything during his lifetime. Everything we're doing he put in motion. Everything else he put into the movement. He gave away a lot. His private papers were for the family to have and we keep them housed at Morehouse."
Farris told CBB that the major focus of his work was to redirect the activities of The King Center back to its original purpose as an educational and policy-formulating institution. "We are not a frontline activist organization. Because of their memories of my uncle, people often push us in activist directions, such as voter registration drives. However direct confrontation is the last step; we are part of the actual policy formation. Our model would be the Brookings Institute and other think tanks. No other organization can bring the unique perspective that we can."
At a Glance …
Born Isaac Newton Farris, Jr., on April 13, 1962, in Atlanta, GA; divorced. Education: Morehouse College, BA, pre-law, 1985. Religion: Baptist. Politics: Independent.
Career: Fulton County, GA, campaign manager and chief of staff for County Commissioner Martin Luther King III, 1986-95; The King Center, Atlanta, GA, chief operating officer, 1995-99, president and chief executive officer, 2005-.
Memberships: Ebenezer Baptist Church; The King Center, board of directors.
Addresses: Office—The King Center, 449 Auburn Avenue, NE, Atlanta, GA 30312.
The major undertakings of the center under Farris included maintaining its archives, the single largest collection documenting the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and an important resource for scholars. Farris collaborated with Stanford University on the King Papers Project-a projected 14-volume collection of Dr. King's writings, of which five volumes had been published as of 2007. The center was also collaborating with the U.S. Department of Education on the development of a non-violence educational curriculum. As of 2007, the curriculum had been completed through the fifth grade and was being extended through the highschool level. Farris worked with individual states to assure that the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday was celebrated appropriately as a day of service. To that end, the center worked with the U.S. Congress in 1998 to change the wording of the law creating the holiday. Farris also continued to work with various groups on non-violent conflict resolution and planned to reintroduce the Scholar Intern Program, whereby students earned college credit working on projects at the King Center. Speaking of his work at the center, Farris told CBB: "We are at a crucial point."
Atlanta Inquirer, January 7, 2006, p. 1.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 5, 2007.
Atlanta Tribune, July 2007, p. 25.
Chicago Defender, March 3-6, 2006, p. 6.
New York Times, April 4, 2007, p. A9.
Seattle Times, January 20, 1997, B4.
The King Center,www.thekingcenter.org (August 12, 2007).
"King Center Sold to the Federal Government?" National Newspaper Publishers Association, Inc., www.blackpressusa.com/News/Article.asp?SID=3&Title=Hot+Stories&NewsID=6074 (April 23, 2007).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Isaac Newton Farris, Jr., on August 10, 2007.
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