Martin Luther King Jr.'s heirs settle dispute over Nobel Prize and Bible

A Georgia judge signed an order on Monday ending an ownership dispute among the slain civil rights leader's children.

John Bazemore/AP/File
From left to right, the children of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King – Dexter Scott King, the Rev. Bernice King, Martin Luther King III and Yolanda King – participate in a musical tribute to their mother at the new Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta in 2006.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s traveling Bible and Nobel Peace Prize medal will be released to his estate, according to a consent order signed by a judge on Monday, ending a years-long ownership dispute between the civil rights leader's three children. 

The dispute began in January 2014, when Mr. King's two sons, Martin Luther King III and Dexter Scott King, voted 2-1 against their sister Bernice King to sell the items, which were in Bernice's possession, to an unnamed private buyer. At the time, Bernice said she could not consider doing so, as her father's heirlooms were "sacred." 

"There is no justification for selling either of these sacred items," she wrote in a statement. "They are priceless and should never be exchanged for money in the marketplace. While I love my brothers dearly, this latest decision by them ... reveals a desperation beyond comprehension."

About a week after the vote, the estate, of which King's three children are the sole shareholders and directors, filed a lawsuit asking a judge to order her to surrender them. 

On Monday, the same day a trial to determine the ownership of the Nobel medal was scheduled to begin, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney signed an order submitted by both sides dismissing the suit. The order turned the keys to the safe deposit box holding the Bible and medal over to Martin, the chairman of the estate. The owner of the Bible had already been determined, as Judge McBurney ruled last month that it belonged to the estate.

The three siblings had a long history of taking each other to court, even before the dispute over the Bible and medal, as The Christian Science Monitor's Cristina Maza reported in January 2015:

The dispute is far from the first legal battle the King siblings have entered into. In August 2013, which was the 50th anniversary of King's "I Have a Dream" speech, his estate demanded that Ms. King cease to use her father's image, likeness, and memorabilia in her role as CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. Lawyers in the case also declared that the center was storing some of Dr. King’s personal effects in an “unacceptable” manner. A ruling on that case is still pending.

In a previous lawsuit, Ms. King and Martin Luther King III sued Dexter King. The two siblings claimed that their brother had taken cash from the estate of their late mother, Coretta Scott King, to launch a private business venture.

For many, the clashes between the offspring of an inspirational historical figure have been rather disheartening.

The surprising settlement signed Monday, the chances of which had been deemed "fair/poor" in a court filing last week, ended a long and arduous legal process. The dispute was originally set to go to trial in February 2015, until Judge McBurney halted all action in the case in an attempt to reach a resolution outside of court. In May, lawyers for both sides reported that they had almost reached an agreement, leading McBurney to order mediation. 

Typically, Judge McBurney said at a hearing in June, he would not allow such long delays in a case, but made an exception because of the importance of the items. 

The Bible in question, which King used while traveling, was used by President Barack Obama during his second inauguration in January 2013. The civil rights leader was awarded the Nobel medal in 1964, four years before his assassination. 

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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