A GENERATION after Martin Luther King’s death, his children are fighting among themselves again, this time over two of their father’s most cherished possessions, his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize medal and the Bible he carried.
The civil rights leader’s daughter Bernice King has both items, and her brothers, Dexter King and Martin Luther King III, have asked a judge to order her to hand them over. She claims they want to sell the items.
In a blistering statement, Bernice said their father “must be turning in his grave” over the idea. She said that while she loved her brothers dearly, she was “appalled and utterly ashamed” of the plan, adding: “It reveals a desperation beyond comprehension.”
At a news conference from the pulpit of the 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 e-mails and calls, a lawyer for the King estate, which is controlled by Dexter and Martin III, sent a copy of a 1995 agreement in which the siblings signed over the rights to many items to the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr Inc.
Bernice has repeatedly acknowledged the validity of the 1995 deal but is refusing to hand over the Bible and medal, the brothers said in court papers.
Martin Luther King 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 sold 10,000 documents from their collection for $32 million (£19.5m), with the siblings receiving equal shares of the proceeds.
They also have not shied from legal battles that push their family disputes into the public eye.
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 she died in 2007, that glue was gone.
Just over a year after her 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 Centre for Nonviolent Social Change, where Bernice is chief executive. The estate wants to stop the centre from using King’s image and memorabilia, saying the materials were not being properly cared for.
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,” he said. “It’s been about maximizing the dollar value of Dr King’s legacy.”
Bernice said she was aware many people might roll their eyes and say, “Here the King children go again”. But this time was different, she said. These two items were sacred and reflected the very essence of their father.
The Rev Joseph Lowery, one of the Martin Luther King jnr’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.