Selling a legacy? Children of Martin Luther King in court over Bible, Nobel

The three children of Martin Luther King officially control their father's estate together. But while the sons have been in favor of selling the Nobel medal and Bible, the daughter has not, pitting the siblings against one another.

Kent D. Johnson/AP
Dexter King talks with attorney Nicole Wade during a hearing over who owns the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1964 Nobel Peace Prize medal and traveling Bible on Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2015, in Fulton County Superior Court in Atlanta. Dr. King's estate last year asked a judge to order King's daughter to surrender the items.

The legacy of America’s most celebrated civil rights activist, Martin Luther King Jr., has been embroiled in another ugly legal dispute that was considered in court on Tuesday.

The children of Dr. King are arguing over some of the pastor’s most prized possessions: his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize medal and the personal Bible he carried with him during the civil rights movement. A judge in Atlanta heard arguments in the case Tuesday.

King’s three children – Bernice King and her two brothers, Martin Luther King III and Dexter King – officially control their father's estate together. But while the brothers have been in favor of selling the medal and Bible, Ms. King has not, pitting the siblings against one another.

Last year the estate sued Ms. King, with the brothers seeking to use an emergency court order to obligate their sister to hand over the objects. Ms. King, the brothers claimed, signed a 1995 agreement ceding control of the medal and the Bible to the estate.

Last February, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney ordered Ms. King to give the objects to the court so they could be kept in a safe deposit box until the lawsuit is resolved. Ms. King agreed.

Judge McBurney did not issue a ruling in favor of either side Tuesday, but says he hopes to do so before the case is set to go to trial next month.

The Bible and Nobel Peace Prize are allegedly worth millions of dollars, and the two King brothers would like to sell the objects to private bidders. President Obama used the Bible during his 2013 inauguration, potentially increasing the worth of that item.

In February 2014, Ms. King released a statement about the legal battle with her siblings.

"There is no justification for selling either of these sacred items," she wrote. "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.”

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.

“It is hard to fathom how the important legacy that the competing parties claim to be seeking to protect will be well served by yet another very public airing of the disputes and squabbles that have sadly divided the King family in recent years,” wrote McBurney in an order attached to one of the suits. 

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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