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MLK’s son: Ownership of Bible, Nobel prize is only issue

Dexter Scott King appeared in court Tuesday with lawyer Nicole Wade. He and his brother had voted to sell artifacts.
Dexter Scott King appeared in court Tuesday with lawyer Nicole Wade. He and his brother had voted to sell artifacts.Kent D. Johnson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via Associated Press

ATLANTA — One of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s sons declined to say Tuesday whether his father’s 1964 Nobel Peace Prize medal and traveling Bible would be sold if a judge rules they belong to the civil rights icon’s estate.

The estate of Martin Luther King Jr. Inc., which is controlled by his sons, asked a judge last year to order King’s daughter to surrender the items. King’s three surviving children are the sole shareholders and directors of the estate. In a board of directors meeting a year ago, Martin Luther King III and Dexter Scott King voted 2-1 against Bernice King to sell the artifacts to an unnamed private buyer.


Bernice said in February that the idea of selling two of their father’s most cherished items was unthinkable.

Dexter, the only one of the three siblings to attend Tuesday’s hearing, spoke to reporters afterward. Asked directly whether the items would be sold if the estate wins the case, he responded, ‘‘I can’t say at this time.’’

If the judge rules in favor of the estate, ‘‘we will decide the future of those items at a future time,’’ said Dexter, who is chief executive of the estate. The estate also hopes the items would be more accessible to the public, he said, noting that the Nobel medal has never been on public display. A replica is on display at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.

Dexter said that he gets frustrated by the repeated legal battles that have divided his family in recent years but that he’s not mad at his sister.

‘‘This is a business issue, and it’s certainly my hope that we can resolve it ultimately in some type of form that precludes having to go to trial. But if we can’t, that’s why courts are here,’’ he said.


Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. His widow, Coretta Scott King, died in 2006. Yolanda King, the Kings’ eldest child, died in 2007.

The estate’s lawyers have cited a 1995 agreement among King’s heirs to sign over their rights to many items they inherited from their father to the estate. Bernice King has repeatedly acknowledged the validity of that agreement but has refused to turn over the Bible and peace prize, according to the complaint they filed.

Much of the argument at Tuesday’s hearing centered on the resolution to 2008 litigation that found the 1995 agreement was valid. A 2009 final order in that case instructed the estate to draw up a list of items that it contends are its property. Unless Bernice King disputed ownership of those items, the estate was to arrange to pick those items up within a certain period of time.

Her lawyers have argued the estate never presented such a list to her. Lawyers for the estate have said the list was drawn up and presented to Bernice, but they have no documentation to prove it.

Nicole Jennings Wade, a lawyer for the estate, said Tuesday in court that even if the list was never presented, that does not mean the estate gives up the rights to the Bible and Nobel Peace Prize that she said are guaranteed under the 1995 agreement.

Eric Barnum, a lawyer for Bernice, argued the estate didn’t lose ownership because it never had ownership of the two items. The 2009 order provided a mechanism for the estate to assert its ownership of certain items and for Bernice to dispute those assertions, but the estate failed to make those claims.


‘‘What they did is tantamount to producing a blank piece of paper,’’ Barnum said.

Wade disagreed, saying ‘‘There is nothing in this order that gets you from if you don’t provide the list, you lose ownership.’’