Martin Luther King’s sons drop one of two lawsuits over father’s legacy

Dexter Scott King, left, Bernice King and Martin Luther King III are now working to resolve their differences out of court after the brothers dropped a lawsuit. A separate suit over their father's Bible and Nobel medal remains unresolved.
(John Bazemore / Associated Press)

The long-standing squabbles among the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s children may soon be over – or at least hidden from public view.

On Thursday, the slain civil rights icon’s sons dropped their lawsuit against the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, the nonprofit group set up by their mother, Coretta Scott King, that is run by their sister, Bernice Albertine King.

Days before the case was to go to trial, Dexter Scott King, chief executive of the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr. Inc., released a statement saying he had instructed the estate’s attorneys to withdraw its civil action against the King Center. His brother, Martin Luther King III, the chairman of the estate’s board, had had a change of heart, he said.


“I understand my brother’s apprehension days before a public trial, and I share those concerns,” Dexter King said. “None of us want to see the legacy of my parents, or our dysfunction, out on public display.”

If the estate had won, the center would have had to strip “Martin Luther King Jr.” from its title. It would no longer have had the right to exhibit King’s memorabilia or speeches, nor the crypt that contains his remains.

This month, Martin had seemed to switch allegiance, or at least to distance himself from his brother, in an effort to resolve the situation with his sister. That resulted in a shift in power in the for-profit estate, in which all three surviving siblings are equal shareholders.

“For me this is a show of good faith as we, as a family, enter into talks to resolve these issues outside of the courtroom,” Dexter King said. “We do have some very serious issues to address and resolve, and I hope that we will be successful in doing that amongst and with each other.”

The brothers’ lawsuit, filed in August 2013, sought to terminate the King Center’s right to use or possess King’s intellectual and physical property. According to their complaint, the King Center was failing in its duty to maintain its collection of King’s possessions, which are the property of the King estate. They alleged that an internal audit showed the artifacts were at risk of damage by fire, water, mold, mildew and theft.

Bernice King said the dismissal of the lawsuit vindicated the King Center’s position that it had not authorized or ratified any licensing agreement that allowed the estate to strip the center of its name, or its use of King’s name, image and likeness. The center had always maintained that the estate’s allegations were unfounded, she added.

“The dismissal is an important first step in rebuilding a long-lasting relationship between the two corporations,” she said in a Thursday night statement. “Going forward, the King Center is hopeful that the parties will work together, hand in hand, in a manner consistent with the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the vision of Coretta Scott King to build the King Center as the official living memorial to her husband and his leadership legacy of nonviolent social change.”

Although the lawsuit against the center has been dropped, a separate legal action against Bernice King remains unresolved. That suit concerns ownership of King’s traveling Bible and his Nobel Peace Prize medal. The brothers have voted to sell these items and argue that Bernice, in refusing to surrender them, is violating a 1995 agreement among King’s heirs that assigned title and all rights and interests in property inherited from King to the estate.

Her attorneys contest the validity of that agreement, arguing that the estate failed to comply with a 2009 court ruling to submit a list establishing title to King’s personal property. If the siblings fail to settle this lawsuit, and the judge does not issue a summary judgment, the case could go to trial in late February.

Andrew Young, the civil rights leader and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told The Times last week that Martin King wants to negotiate a compromise between Bernice and Dexter. The hope, Young said, is that the three siblings will agree to sell the Bible and Nobel Prize medal to a benefactor who would donate them to the Smithsonian Institution or Atlanta’s Center for Civil and Human Rights.