How do you solve a problem like the King kids?
Since the deaths of their mother, Coretta Scott King, and eldest sibling, Yolanda King, the surviving children of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. have engaged in some publicly destructive and embarrassing behavior.
Lawsuits abound in this King Lear-ish plot as brothers Dexter Scott King and Martin Luther King III have tried to oust sister Bernice King from her spot as CEO of the King Center in Atlanta. The situation reached peak messiness last year when Bernice revealed that her brothers planned to sell their father’s 1964 Nobel Peace Prize and Bible. Now a judge is set to decide this week—just as the nation is set to mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday—whether Bernice must give up the heirlooms or whether the case will go to trial.
It’s disgusting that an understandable effort to get better control of their father’s image would turn into this: controversies over money mismanagement; constant lawsuits against King’s documenters, friends and contemporaries; and the image of MLK being used to sell cellphones. But worst of all, who could have guessed that it would dissolve into three children regularly suing and countersuing one another for almost a decade over who would control the millions that make up “King Inc.,” or the estate of Martin Luther King Jr. Inc.?
From arguments over what to do with the King Center to the lowest-of-low digs over a $55,000 Lincoln Navigator in 2008, here’s a timeline of the fight for King Inc.
December 2005: In an early—and, at the time, rarely seen—public spat, the siblings split on whether or not to sell the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta to the National Park Service, which currently manages the family church and historic home. Bernice and Martin III oppose the sale, while Yolanda and Dexter support it. At the time the center—founded in 1968 by their mother, Coretta, and managed by her sons—is in need of up to $12 million worth of repairs. Dexter argues that the center would be better off in the hands of the Park Service, which had been trying to acquire the King Center since the 1990s.
Says political columnist and longtime friend of the King family Tom Houck: “I think Dexter really wants out [of] the business of being a repository of all things King. … He feels the feds can do a better job of it, and he won’t have to worry about being criticized by the media anymore.”
Ultimately the center stays in the family.
January 2006: Coretta Scott King dies, leaving her estate, King Inc. and the King Center in the hands of her surviving children.
June 2006: King’s children arrange to have their father’s papers auctioned by Sotheby’s, something they’ve been trying to arrange since at least 2003 but are hastened into doing in light of their mother’s death and the dire financial health of the King estate. In response, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin organizes a private group to purchase the papers for $32 million, then gifts the papers to MLK’s alma mater, Morehouse College.
May 2007: Eldest sister Yolanda dies. Some reports say that Yolanda was the peacemaker among the siblings. Family friend the Rev. Joseph Lowery would say that the King children always had their differences but Yolanda served as a bridge between them, and now “that bridge is no longer there.”
July 2008: Bernice and Martin III sue Dexter, accusing Dexter, who is the president of King Inc., of cutting them out of the decision-making process, as well as taking funds from their mother’s estate and placing them in their father’s estate, of which he is CEO.
They claim that Dexter has withheld documents from them and has refused to hold shareholders’ meetings since 2004. The suit also targets how the funds from the $32 million sale of King’s papers will be divided and the siblings’ exclusion from a licensing deal for the use of King’s words and likeness at the King Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., then still under development.
August 2008: Dexter countersues Bernice and Martin III. Of Bernice he demands that she turn over their mother’s personal papers, including several love letters. These letters are apparently a key selling point in a $1.4 million book deal on the table. As for Martin III, he accuses him of mismanagement of King Center funds, including a quibble over a $55,000 Lincoln Navigator SUV that was lent to the center, which Dexter claims that Martin III kept for personal use. Martin III’s lawyer calls Dexter’s accusations “petty.”
September 2009: Judge Ural D. Glandville orders the siblings to settle their dispute out of court. Later this month, King Inc. holds its first board meeting since 2004, resulting in an eventual settlement.
October 2009: Bernice and Martin III officially settle their suit against Dexter, avoiding a messy trial that would have exposed the inner details of King Inc.
August 2011: The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on the National Mall is complete. It is reported that Dexter negotiated with the government to pay the estate $800,000 for licensing fees regarding the use of King’s likeness and words on the monument. A year later, journalist George Curry criticizes what he sees as the King children’s choice of greed over protecting their parents’ legacy: “Instead of being satisfied with this impressive memorial to their father—the first monument to an African American on the Mall—the King children saw dollar signs.”
September 2011: The King estate files a federal lawsuitin Jackson, Miss., against the son of Maude Ballou. Ballou was King’s secretary in the late 1950s and possessed many documents, including some letters from King. The children lose this lawsuit, and the documents eventually go up for auction in 2013.
January 2012: Bernice takes over as King Center CEO after her brothers and a cousin, Isaac Newton Farris, took turns running the center. The center has been under constant criticism for being in varying states of disrepair. Atlanta Magazine would report that shortly after Coretta Scott King’s death, most of the King Center’s programs were discontinued and the reflecting pool around their father’s tomb was cracked, filed with blooming algae.
August 2013: Martin III and Dexter sue the Bernice-led King Center. They file the suit on Aug. 28, the same day as the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, when their father gave his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. They argue that the center has not properly managed the estate’s intellectual property, leaving it open for possible theft, and demand that it stop using their father’s likeness and image unless certain criteria are met.
Among those demands is that MLK’s niece Alveda King and former King aide and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young be thrown off the board of directors. Martin III and Dexter also state in their suit that they want Bernice to go on “administrative leave” as director. They accuse Young of using footage of their father in a documentary he produced without their permission. Young argues that he is actually in the footage with King, making it his footage as well.
It is reportedly the fifth lawsuit between the siblings in the past decade.
October 2013: Singer, actor and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte sues the King estate over the rights to several King documents that he had planned to auction. The items, which were in Belafonte’s possession, were pulled from auction after the King children disputed whether or not Belafonte was the rightful owner. The papers include a condolence letter from President Lyndon B. Johnson to Coretta Scott King after King was assassinated in 1968, an outline of a Vietnam War speech and notes from a speech King was never able to deliver in Memphis, Tenn. Belafonte argued that he has possessed these items for years and they were gifts from King and Coretta Scott King.
January 2014: Bernice claims that her brothers, Dexter and Martin III, approached her about selling their father’s Nobel Peace Prize and Bible—the same Bible lent to President Barack Obama for his swearing-in ceremony in 2013—to a private buyer. At the time, the brothers are still embroiled in a lawsuit trying to oust Bernice as CEO of the King Center.
February 2014: Bernice puts out a blistering press release accusing her brothers of being more concerned with profits than with protecting their slain father’s legacy. Writes Bernice: “While I love my brothers dearly, this latest decision by them is extremely troubling. Not only am I appalled and utterly ashamed, I am frankly disappointed that they would even entertain the thought of selling these precious items. It reveals a desperation beyond comprehension. As Mark 8:36 teaches, ‘For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?’ Our Father MUST be turning in his grave.”
Bernice’s brothers’ lawyers counter that she has no right to withhold these items because of a 1995 agreement in which the siblings agreed to sign over to the company their rights to their inherited items. The brothers claim that this includes the Nobel Peace Prize and Bible.
December 2014: Ava DuVernay’s film Selma is released. It chronicles King’s efforts during the Selma-to-Montgomery marches of 1965. Some critics are surprised that the words to King’s speeches have been rewritten, but DuVernay goes on to explain that when she took on the film in 2013, she had to rewrite the speeches because of licensing issues. In 2009 the King estate licensed the speeches to DreamWorks and Warner Bros. for an untitled Steven Spielberg production about King. Negotiations to use the speeches between the studios and the producers of Selma were unsuccessful, resulting in the rewrite. The King children have long fought over a film about their father, stymieing its production. Two of the King children, Bernice and Martin III, eventually attend screenings, but Dexter reportedly has still not seen the film.
January 2015: After a year of familial fighting, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney is set to decide this week—near the 85th anniversary of MLK’s birth on Jan. 15—whether or not Bernice must hand over MLK’s Bible and Nobel Peace Prize for sale or whether the case should go to trial.