Legal feud among Martin Luther King’s children on display in court

Dexter Scott King and attorney Nicole Wade at Tuesday's hearing in Fulton County Superior Court in Atlanta.
(Kent D. Johnson / Atlanta Journal-Constitution )

A family feud among the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s children was on display in an Atlanta courtroom Tuesday as his heirs sparred over who owns his personal Bible and Nobel Peace Prize medal.

Martin Luther King III and Dexter Scott King want to sell their father’s prized belongings to a private buyer. They contend that their sister, Bernice Albertine King, “secreted and sequestered” the items in violation of a 1995 agreement that gave the for-profit Estate of Martin Luther King Jr. Inc. ownership of all their father’s property.

Bernice King disputes their ownership and contends that any sale of the contested possessions — considered among the most valuable artifacts from the civil rights era — would betray their father’s legacy. “Our father must be turning in his grave,” she said in a public statement last year.


The legal battle is part of a wider power struggle among King’s three surviving children: Lawyers are scheduled to appear in the same Atlanta courthouse next week in a separate lawsuit pitting the King estate against the nonprofit Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, which is controlled by Bernice.

Dexter King was the sole sibling to attend Tuesday’s motions hearing at Fulton County Superior Court. When asked about plans to sell his father’s possessions, he struck a dispassionate tone.

“This is not an issue of wanting to sell them,” he said outside the courtroom, noting that the Nobel Prize had never been displayed to the public, although he would ultimately like it to be more accessible. “This is an issue of ownership and retrieving property. An individual has sequestered property that belongs to the corporation.”

King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. His Bible was used in President Obama’s 2013 inauguration.

The King feud has dismayed many in Atlanta’s civil rights community, who worry it will distract attention from the upcoming 50th anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act and of the march from Selma, Ala., to the state capital of Montgomery — the subject of the current movie “Selma.”

The issue before Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert C.I. McBurney on Tuesday was not the moral question of whether the estate should sell the items, but the technical, legal issue of which party owns them.


Attorneys for the King estate argued that Bernice King had violated the terms of the siblings’ 1995 agreement as well as a 2009 court order. Her lawyers, in turn, disputed the validity of the agreement, arguing that the estate had failed to comply with the 2009 court ruling to submit a list establishing title to the civil rights icon’s tangible personal property.

“This court is being asked to order that Bernice King turn over items because their ownership is not in question,” said Bernice King’s attorney, Eric L. Barnum. “But it absolutely is in question.”

Nicole Jennings Wade, attorney for the estate, expressed exasperation: “One of the primary ways to show somebody doesn’t own something is to show that someone else owns it,” she said. “Yet we haven’t heard anything.”

Bernice King, who controls their late mother Coretta Scott King’s estate, has asserted that her father gave the Nobel medal to her mother as a gift. Bernice’s attorney argued Tuesday that she does not bear the burden of proof in this particular case. Instead, he argued, those bringing the case must demonstrate ownership.

All three surviving King siblings are shareholders in the King estate, a company founded in 1993 to manage the licensing of their father’s image and intellectual property. Dexter is the estate’s president, Martin is its chairman and Bernice is a board member. (King’s eldest child, Yolanda, died in 2007 at age 51.)

Until now, Dexter and Martin have banded together against Bernice. But last week, a personal attorney for Martin gave notice of a special meeting of the estate’s board of directors that was to take place the following day. The estate went to court to prevent it.

Wade, the estate’s attorney, said at Tuesday’s hearing that she had no idea what Martin was planning. She argued against such a meeting, saying Bernice is a conflicted board member whose interests are detrimental to the estate.

As the attorneys debated whether the siblings should be able to meet as board members to discuss or vote on possible resolutions to their dispute, Judge McBurney said, “You all are a little conflicted in this argument.”

Each side has asked the judge for a summary judgment in its favor. On Tuesday, he declined to make an immediate ruling. If he does not issue a summary judgment, or if the siblings fail to reach a settlement, the case could go to trial in late February.

This is not the first time the estate has considered selling the civil rights leader’s property. In 2006, the estate aimed to auction his personal papers for as much as $30 million. But a group of philanthropists and business leaders stepped in, buying the documents for an undisclosed sum and donating them to King’s alma mater, Morehouse College in Atlanta.

Bernice and Martin had previously sued Dexter, contending that he had improperly taken money from the estate of their late mother and transferred it to his own company. That lawsuit was quietly settled before trial.

Outside the courtroom Tuesday, Dexter King said he felt no anger toward Bernice. “She’s my sister and I love her,” he said, “but this is a business issue.”

Jarvie is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Matt Pearce in Los Angeles contributed to this report.