ATLANTA – A generation after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.s death, his children are fighting among themselves again, this time over two of their fathers most cherished possessions: his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize medal and the Bible he carried.
The civil rights leaders daughter Bernice King has both items, and her brothers, Dexter King and Martin Luther King III, asked a judge last week to order her to turn them over. She said her brothers want to sell them.
In a blistering statement this week, Bernice said their father MUST be turning in his grave over the idea. She said that while she loves her brothers dearly, she was appalled and utterly ashamed of the plan, and added: It reveals a desperation beyond comprehension.
Then on Thursday, at a news conference from the pulpit of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church where her father and grandfather preached, she portrayed herself as the true protector of Kings 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 repeated emails and calls, a lawyer for the King estate, which is controlled by Dexter and Martin III, sent a copy of a 1995 agreement among the siblings in which they signed over the rights to many items to the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr. Inc.
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 wasnt surprised in the slightest to hear about the latest fight among the King heirs.
The agenda has always been greed, Garrow said. Its been about maximizing the dollar value of Dr. Kings legacy.
Bernice has repeatedly acknowledged the validity of the 1995 agreement but is now refusing to hand over the Bible and medal, the brothers said in court papers.
Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. His widow, Coretta Scott King, died in 2006.
The King children have profited from their fathers legacy. In 2006, Sothebys auctioned off 10,000 documents from their collection for $32 million, with the siblings receiving equal shares of the proceeds.
Garrow said Kings Bible should go to a museum or somewhere it can be seen by everyone.
The fundamental bottom line here is that the King children have no clue what their fathers legacy really means, Garrow said. Martin Luther King Jr. was the most unselfish, ungreedy person who ever lived.
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 Yolanda died in 2007, that glue was gone.
Just over a year after Yolandas 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 fathers 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 Center for Nonviolent Social Change, where Bernice is CEO. The estate wants to stop the King Center from using Kings image and memorabilia, saying the materials were not being properly cared for.
Bernice said Thursday that she is aware that many people may roll their eyes and say, Here the King children go again.
But this time is different, she said. These two items are sacred and reflect the very essence of their father: a man of God and a champion of peaceful protest.
Bernice said she and her brothers do not take legal action against each other lightly and use it only as a last resort. She said she hopes they will be able to reconcile, and she offered an apology to her parents, adding, I believe that one day we will set the example you hoped we would provide.