King’s children in new legal battle

Times Staff Writers

In recent years, Martin Luther King Jr.'s children have been accused of exploiting their father’s legacy, mismanaging the nonviolence center that bears his name and acting as poor stewards of a trove of documents that tell the story of America’s civil rights struggle.

They have also been known to squabble among themselves, and they are at it again, this time in a lawsuit filed in Georgia.

At issue is money -- an undisclosed but “substantial” sum, according to court documents -- as well as the management of the company they founded to profit from their father’s legacy.


None of King’s three surviving children could be reached for comment Friday. But in some civil rights circles, the suit filed this week was seen as one more unfortunate public distraction from the King family’s legacy.

“I just hated to see it come to the point where a legal action was necessary,” said William “Sonny” Walker, a former interim director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolence and Social Change in Atlanta.

In the suit, Bernice King and Martin Luther King III, both of Atlanta, accuse their Malibu-based brother, Dexter King, of improperly taking money from the estate of their late mother, Coretta Scott King, and transferring it to the company Dexter controls.

The company, officially known as the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr. Inc., was founded in 1993 to manage the licensing of the slain civil rights leader’s image and intellectual property, among other things.

The two Atlanta siblings are shareholders in the company, but Dexter is its president.

The suit charges Dexter King with failing to inform his brother and sister of the company’s financial affairs; it also alleges that the company’s assets are being “misapplied or wasted.”

Millions of dollars could be at stake. Two years ago, the siblings sought to auction some of King’s documents at Sotheby’s. They were expected to sell for as much as $30 million, but just before they were scheduled to be publicly auctioned, a group of philanthropists and business leaders bought the documents for an undisclosed sum, promising to keep the collection intact in Atlanta at Morehouse College, Martin Luther King Jr.'s alma mater.

The lawsuit demands that Dexter King produce documents pertaining to the sale of the papers but does not elaborate.

The siblings have been criticized for suing news outlets for using Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech without permission.

They have also allowed their father’s image and speech to be used in TV and print ads for Alcatel Americas, a technology company.

In 2003, Atlanta newspaper columnist Cynthia Tucker wrote that the family had “converted King’s legacy into a profit center -- I Have a Dream Inc.”

Scholars such as Taylor Branch, meanwhile, have criticized the siblings for neglecting a large cache of historical documents that remain at the King Center.

The center itself was the subject of another high-profile battle among the children in 2005 and 2006, as they bickered over whether to sell the poorly maintained institution to the National Park Service.

In the end, the family declined to sell; Dexter King, who favored a sale, remains the chairman.

At the funeral of their mother in 2006, former President Clinton described the children’s call to carry on their father’s legacy as “a terrible burden” and asked the crowd to pray for them.