America Letter: Martin Luther King’s children fight over legacy

Civil right activist’s family embroiled in court battle over his Nobel prize medal and Bible

When Martin Luther King dreamt, he wished for a world of equality where the content of one’s character would trump the colour of one’s skin. An ugly squabble among his children about his personal effects would certainly not have been among his visions for the future.

Monday marks Martin Luther King Day, a public holiday in the United States to commemorate the civil rights leader. Almost 47 years since his assassination, the legacy of this African-American leader has been entangled in a bitter family legal dispute.

Dr King's three surviving children, who control his estate, are slugging it out in an Atlanta courtroom over his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize medal and a personal Bible he carried with him during the civil rights movement. The items, among his most treasured possessions, are potentially very valuable, particularly given that President Barack Obama was sworn in for a second term in 2013 on the Bible.

The current legal action began soon after Mr Obama's second inauguration. Dexter King and Martin Luther King III, the activist's sons, have voted, as directors of his estate, to sell the items, while their sister Bernice King, a third director, is opposed to the sale. The brothers sued their sister who has the items in her possession.


“There is no justification for selling either of these sacred items,” she said in a statement released almost a year ago. “They are priceless and should never be exchanged for money in the marketplace.”

Resolve their litigation

Ms King agreed to an order by Fulton County superior court Judge Robert McBurney in


to hand over the items to the court for safe keeping until the siblings resolve their litigation. They are now sitting in a safety deposit box in a bank.

The matter came before the court on Tuesday. The judge issued no ruling but one is expected before the case goes to trial next month.

This is not the first time the King children have squared off against each other. On the 50th anniversary of Dr King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech, in August 2013, the brothers through the estate filed a lawsuit against the non-profit Martin Luther King Jr Center for Nonviolent Social Change, where Ms King is chief executive, demanding that she stop using their father’s image, likeness and memorabilia.

In an earlier legal action, Ms King and Martin Luther King III sued Dexter King claiming that he had taken cash from the estate of their mother, Coretta Scott King, to start a private business venture. Judge McBurney has expressed frustration with the latest legal row among the King children.

“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,” the judge wrote in an order in one of the lawsuits.

Dr King’s legacy has become a lucrative money-spinning venture. His children through his estate have protected the copyright to his speeches and acted many times where they feel it has been infringed.

Most famous speech

USA Today

, the American newspaper, and later CBS were forced to make undisclosed settlements to the King estate in the 1990s after they used his “I Have A Dream” speech without its permission. For the 50th anniversary of his most famous speech, the estate licensed use of lines from the speech to AT&T in mobile phone adverts. Other licensing deals agreed by the estate include the use of Dr King’s words in promotional material by




and Mercedes.

The estate even earned more than $700,000 (€600,000) from the foundation that erected the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington DC for the right to use his image in a statue along with lines from his speeches carved in the memorial near the National Mall.

The new Hollywood drama Selma, depicting Dr King's civil rights struggle, paraphrased his most powerful speeches because his estate has already licensed the film rights to his speeches to the film studios Dreamworks and Warner Bros for a biopic that Steven Spielberg is being lined up to produce. (There was surprise on Thursday when the film, criticised for its depiction of Dr King's relationship with President Lyndon Baines Johnson, received just two Oscar nominations.)

In 2006, the King family sold a large collection of the pastor's notes, unpublished sermons and other items for $32 million to Morehouse College, Dr King's alma mater in Atlanta. The King family will retain copyright over the pastor's speeches and writings until at least 2038. Protection lasts the lifetime of the individual plus 70 years under copyright law.

With large sums of money at stake over King memorabilia for some time to come, there is much to fight over in court.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is News Editor of The Irish Times