The civil rights leader’s daughter Bernice King has both items, and her brothers, Dexter King and Martin Luther King III, asked a judge last week to order her to turn them over. She said her brothers want to sell them.
In a blistering statement this week, Bernice said their father “MUST be turning in his grave” over the idea. She said while she loves her brothers dearly, she was “appalled and utterly ashamed” of the plan, and added: “It reveals a desperation beyond comprehension.”
Then on Thursday, at a news conference from the pulpit of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church where her father and grandfather preached, she portrayed herself as the true protector of King’s legacy.
“When the record books are written, let it be said that there was at least one heir who tried to further the legacy,” she said.
In response to repeated emails and calls, a lawyer for the King estate, which is controlled by Dexter and Martin III, sent a copy of a 1995 agreement among the siblings in which they signed over the rights to many items to the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr. Inc. The lawyer offered no comment.
It is the latest in a string of disputes over the years that some historians have come to see as a sad and unseemly footnote to history that could damage King’s name.
David J. Garrow, whose book “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference” won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize, said he wasn’t “surprised in the slightest” to hear about the latest fight among the King heirs.
“The agenda has always been greed,” Garrow said. “It’s been about maximizing the dollar value of Dr. King’s legacy.”
Bernice has repeatedly acknowledged the validity of the 1995 agreement but is now refusing to hand over the Bible and medal, the brothers said in court papers.
Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. His widow, Coretta Scott King, died in 2006.
The King children have profited from their father’s legacy. In 2006, Sotheby’s auctioned off 10,000 documents from their collection for $32 million, with the siblings receiving equal shares of the proceeds.
They also haven’t shied from legal battles that push their family disputes into the public eye.
Garrow said King’s Bible should go to a museum or somewhere it can be seen by everyone.
“The fundamental bottom line here is that the King children have no clue what their father’s legacy really means,” the historian said. “Martin Luther King Jr. was the most unselfish, ungreedy person who ever lived.”
While their mother was alive, the King children had periods of not speaking to each other, but they mostly kept their disagreements to themselves. After their mother died, it was the oldest daughter, Yolanda, who held the siblings together. When Yolanda died in 2007, that glue was gone.
A little more than a year after Yolanda’s death, the long-simmering dispute among the three remaining children boiled over, with three lawsuits filed between the siblings in as many months.
In one case, Bernice and Martin III sued Dexter to force him to open the books of their father’s estate, accusing him of shutting them out of decisions. The siblings reached a settlement in 2009.
The King estate is also embroiled in a legal battle with the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, where Bernice is CEO. The estate wants to stop the King Center from using King’s image and memorabilia, saying the materials were not being properly cared for.
Bernice said Thursday that she is aware that many people may roll their eyes and say, “Here the King children go again.” But this time is different, she said. These two items are sacred and reflect the very essence of their father: a man of God and a champion of peaceful protest.
Bernice said she and her brothers do not take legal action against each other lightly and use it only as a last resort. She said she hopes they will be able to reconcile, and she offered an apology to her parents, adding, “I believe that one day we will set the example you hoped we would provide.”
The Rev. Joseph Lowery, one of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s lieutenants and a family friend, has backed Bernice in the latest disagreement.
“I’m deeply disturbed by the thought of selling Martin’s Bible and Peace Prize. I sincerely hope that they, his children, will find a way to resolve their differences and address their problems without the thought of putting Martin’s Bible or Peace Prize for sale,” he said in a statement read by Bernice.
Another civil rights veteran, the Rev. C.T. Vivian, was at the news conference to support Bernice. He said he doesn’t believe the children’s actions diminish the great deeds of their father.
“It doesn’t affect the legacy of their father. It affects the legacy of them,” he said. “That’s what I think the public has to see. This is not Martin. This is not about Martin King. This is about them.”