MLK’s Children in Legal Battle Over Bible, Nobel Peace Prize

By  | 

Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Jr. Day–a day to remember the legacy of an amazing man and the values for which he advocated. Unfortunately, however, his family may be spending this MLK Day working on a protracted legal battle over some of his possessions.

The current legal battle has to do with King’s personal Bible and his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. King has three surviving children–Martin Luther King III, Dexter Scott King, and Beatrice Albertine King. Martin and Dexter want to sell the Bible and the Nobel Prize, Beatrice does not. All three siblings are shareholders in the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr. Inc., which was created to manage all of Dr. King’s intellectual property and images. However, Bernice physically has the items in her possession. Her brothers are suing her to gain access to them, so they can sell the items. They’ve accused her of “secreting and sequestering” the items, violating a 1995 agreement that gave the Estate control over their father’s property. They are now in a court-ordered safety deposit box until this is sorted out.

Bernice and her attorneys claim that the ownership of these items wasn’t made clear in that 1995 agreement and that it’s in dispute. Bernice also argues that their father gave their mother, Coretta Scott King, the medal as a gift, meaning that it wouldn’t be considered under the Estate’s ownership. Bernice stated last year:

I will always love my brothers, but we are of different minds and most importantly, different relationships with God…These items should never be sold to any person, as I say it, or any institution, because they’re sacred. I take this strong position for my father because Daddy is not here to say himself, ‘My Bible and medals are never to be sold.’

The case appeared in an Atlanta court earlier this week, and Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney didn’t issue a decision at the time. A decision might be issued in the future, or the fight might actually go to a trial.

This infighting is by no means new–this is at least the fifth lawsuit between the siblings since 2006. For example, in 2013, the brothers sued Bernice and the nonprofit King Center (not to be confused with the Estate) that she runs. They alleged that she was negligent in handling some of MLK’s possessions. That case is also pending. It’s not always split by gender lines, either. In 2008, Bernice and Martin III sued Dexter for acting improperly in his position as the head of the estate. That case was settled privately.

In addition, the King siblings haven’t just limited their legal actions to each other. They’ve been involved in other lawsuits, such as one brought by singer and long-time family friend Harry Belafonte against the siblings. Like the current lawsuit, this one involved MLK’s property–Belafonte claimed that he owned personal papers of King’s given to him by Dr. King himself, Coretta Scott King, MLK aide Stanley Levison. Eventually a deal was reached that allowed Belafonte to retain the documents.

While it’s understandable that the siblings want to protect their father’s legacy, it’s tough to imagine that the constant legal back-and-forth is the best way to do so. While the outcome of the current case is still up in the air, hopefully it will end up the last.

Anneliese Mahoney
Anneliese Mahoney is Managing Editor at Law Street and a Connecticut transplant to Washington D.C. She has a Bachelor’s degree in International Affairs from the George Washington University, and a passion for law, politics, and social issues. Contact Anneliese at



Send this to friend