Legal battles of Martin Luther King Jr.’s children threaten his legacy

An image of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is displayed on a vintage television at the King Center in Atlanta. The nonprofit center may lose its right to use King's intellectual and physical property.
(David Goldman / Associated Press)

Long lines of elementary school children bounded last week along Auburn Avenue — where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was born and where he served as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church — to honor what would have been the slain civil rights leader’s 86th birthday.

At the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, they huddled around King’s marble tomb as his sermons played over a loudspeaker. They peered into cabinets bearing artifacts celebrating his life and legacy, including boots he wore on marches and the monogrammed briefcase he carried on his last trip to Memphis.

All of these items — the tomb, the sermons, the memorabilia — are the subject of a contentious legal battle that has put King’s children once again at odds and placed the future of the King Center, which Coretta Scott King set up in her basement in 1968, in question.


On Tuesday, a day after the King federal holiday, attorneys for Dexter Scott King, the chief executive of the for-profit Estate of Martin Luther King Jr. Inc., will seek to terminate the center’s use of King’s intellectual and physical property. His sister, Bernice Albertine King, is the head of the nonprofit center.

If a judge rules in the estate’s favor, the center would have to strip “Martin Luther King Jr.” from its title. It would no longer have the right to exhibit King’s sermons or speeches, or the crypt that contains his remains.

Andrew Young, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who helped Coretta set up the center and has served on its board for decades, said he believed the federal government should take over the King Center from the family.

“It’s a national monument, not a children’s play thing,” he said.

Two legal battles are unfolding, one concerning the right to use or possess King’s intellectual and physical property. That suit pits the estate against the King Center.

Another suit concerns who owns King’s Bible and his Nobel Peace Prize medal. That suit pits the estate against Bernice.

Dexter, who wants to sell the Bible and medal to a private buyer, claims Bernice illegally “secreted and sequestered” the contested possessions. Bernice, who disputes their ownership, contends any sale of the items would betray their father’s legacy.


The family has long feuded in court, but the latest squabbles are testing the patience of many in Atlanta’s tightknit civil rights community. Some fear they will detract from the upcoming 50th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., depicted in the movie “Selma,” and the subsequent passing of the Voting Rights Act.

“This is not the kind of conversation we want to have,” said the Rev. Timothy McDonald III, senior pastor of the First Iconium Baptist Church. “I have a dream too: that the family can figure out a way to resolve this out of court.”

The Kings are not the only civil rights family to become embroiled in legal warfare.

Malcolm X’s daughters sued a publisher to stop the sale of their father’s diary. Rosa Parks, who did not have children, left her estate to a charity, but that did not stop her nieces and nephews from challenging her will.

Still, many in Atlanta say they cannot fathom how the Kings could consider selling treasured artifacts from the civil rights struggle.

The Bible, which King took on the road with him during his days as a preacher, was used to swear in President Obama for his second term. The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to King in 1964.

“King accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of all the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement,” McDonald said. “The Nobel belongs to the movement, not just to a few individuals.”


Lawyers for the estate argue that Bernice, in refusing to surrender the Bible and Nobel medal, is violating a 1995 agreement between King’s heirs that assigned title and all rights and interests in property inherited from King to the estate.

Her attorneys dispute the validity of this agreement, arguing the estate failed to comply with a 2009 court ruling to submit a list establishing title to King’s personal property.

Outside a downtown Atlanta courtroom last week, Dexter described the lawsuit against Bernice in matter-of-fact terms. “This is an issue of ownership and retrieving property,” he said. “An individual has sequestered property that belongs to the corporation.”

Bernice, who did not appear in court, did not respond to requests for interviews. Previously, Bernice, who controls their late mother’s estate, has asserted that her father gave the Nobel medal to her mother as a gift.

The current legal disputes represent an awkward moment in Atlanta’s relationship with the Kings, said David J. Garrow, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.” “It’s a huge negative for the city, but the Atlanta mind-set is that few want to say that out loud.”

Georgia state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, who worked at the SCLC under King, said he was reluctant to take sides. “The children lost their daddy, who was assassinated,” he said. “I’m not one to sit on the sidelines and criticize the family.”


Over the years, some critics have openly accused the Kings of acting as poor stewards of his estate and legacy.

After the estate allowed King’s image and speech to be used in advertisements for Alcatel Americas, a technology company, a local newspaper columnist, Cynthia Tucker, wrote that the family had “converted King’s legacy into a profit center — I Have a Dream Inc.”

Yet many of the family’s supporters point out that King himself copyrighted his work, including the “I Have a Dream” speech delivered at the Lincoln Memorial. (King used the proceeds from licensing the speech to fund the civil rights movement.)

“Theirs has not been an easy life,” Young said. “They were left virtually penniless and without a father.” In 1969, their uncle, Alfred Daniel Williams King, died mysteriously in a swimming pool accident. Five years later, their grandmother, Alberta Williams King, was shot to death as she played the organ at Ebenezer.

Young, who was with King when he was assassinated and has been close to the siblings since they were children, said he had tried to be “as much of a father to them as they would like me to be.”

But Dexter is now seeking to remove Young from the King Center’s board, complaining he breached his fiduciary duty by using footage of King in a documentary without permission.


“It’s my legacy too,” Young scoffed. “That boy, he’s one spoiled brat. Maybe I should have spanked his butt when he was little.”

According to the lawsuit Dexter filed for the King estate, the King Center is failing its duty to manage and maintain King’s physical property. The collection, it claims, is at risk of damage by fire, water, mold, mildew and theft.

Dexter presided over the King Center from 1994 to 2010. During this time, an audit by the National Park Service estimated the center required $11.6 million in repairs.

The estate offers to continue its licensing agreement with the King Center only if the center complies with its demands, which include placing Bernice on administrative leave.

Behind the scenes, another sibling, Martin Luther King III, is trying to work out a compromise between Bernice, who wants to keep the items in the family, and Dexter, who insists they need the money.

According to Young, the hope is that the siblings will agree to sell the collection to a benefactor who would donate it to the Smithsonian Institution or Atlanta’s Center for Civil and Human Rights. (The King Center does not have adequate security, Young said.)


Although the King Center has added some new programs under Bernice’s tenure, over the years it foundered, cutting back programs and allowing its buildings to fall into disrepair.

The group’s board, once made up of scores of black businessmen, including representatives of corporations such as Coca-Cola and IBM, diminished to a handful of family members and Young.

“People got disgusted,” Young said. “It was a waste of time just dealing with all the family foolishness.”

And yet, Young remains hopeful.

“We don’t have to have the center to carry on Dr. King’s work,” he said. “The legacy of Martin Luther King is very much alive and is not dependent on his children.”

Jarvie is a special correspondent.