ATLANTA — Facing the latest in a string of legal battles with her brothers, the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. is seeking to portray herself as the true heir to her father’s legacy.
Bernice King was outspoken recently in her opposition to what she said was a plan by her brothers, Dexter King and Martin Luther King III, to sell their father’s Nobel Peace Prize medal and personal traveling Bible. Bernice has possession of both items and her brothers asked a judge to order her to turn them over.
“I take this strong position for my father because Daddy is not here to say for himself, ‘My Bible and my medals are not to be sold,’” she said at a news conference Feb. 6 from the pulpit of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church where her father and grandfather were pastors.
“When the record books are written, let it be said that there was at least one heir who tried to further the legacy,” she later added.
King’s heirs agreed in 1995 to sign over rights for many inherited items to the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr. Inc., the brothers’ complaint filed in a court in Atlanta says. Bernice King has repeatedly acknowledged the validity of that agreement but is now refusing to hand over the Bible and medal, the complaint says.
Martin Luther King Jr. 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 auctioned off 10,000 documents from their collection for $32 million, with the siblings receiving equal shares of the money.
They also haven’t shied from legal battles that push their family disputes into the public eye – struggles that many believe have tarnished the family name.
David J. Garrow, a historian 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,” Garrow said. “It’s been about maximizing the dollar value of Dr. King’s legacy.”
While their mother was alive, the King children had periods of not speaking to one another but they mostly kept disagreements to themselves. After their mother died in January 2006, it was the eldest daughter, Yolanda, who held the siblings together. But when Yolanda died in May 2007, that glue was gone. Just over a year after Yolanda’s death, the long-simmering dispute among the three remaining children boiled over, with three lawsuits filed among them in as many months. The disputes among the three have mostly involved aspects of control of their parents’ legacy and, most often in the past, the fights pitted Bernice and Martin against Dexter.
Bernice said she’s aware that many people may roll their eyes and say, “Here the King children go again.” But this time is different, she said. The Bible and the medal are sacred and reflect the very essence of their father: a man of God and a champion of peaceful protest.
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 the 1995 agreement among the siblings. The lawyer offered no comment.
Garrow, the historian, said King’s Bible should go to a museum or a place where it can be seen by everyone.
“The fundamental bottom line here is that the King children have no clue what their father’s legacy really means,” the historian said. “Martin Luther King Jr. was the most unselfish, ‘ungreedy’ person who ever lived.”
Bernice said she loves her brothers and cannot explain why she disagrees with them on certain issues. Despite public opinion, she said, they do not take legal action against one another lightly and use it only as a last resort.
She said she hopes they will be able to reconcile in the future and offered an apology to her late parents, adding, “I believe that one day we will set the example you hoped we would provide.”
The Rev. Joseph Lowery, one of King’s lieutenants and a family friend, supports Bernice in the latest disagreement. Bernice said Lowery wasn’t able to make it to the news conference but she read a statement he sent her.
“I’m deeply disturbed by the thought of selling Martin’s Bible and Peace Prize,” the statement said. “ 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.”
The Rev. C.T. Vivian also backs Bernice, joining about three dozen other supporters at the news conference. A civil rights leader, Vivian last year was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the highest honor the U.S. bestows on civilians. He said he doesn’t believe the children can diminish the great deeds of their father.
“It doesn’t affect the legacy of their father. It affects the legacy of them,” he said. “That’s what I think the public has to see. This is not Martin. This not about Martin King. This is about them.’’