Fifty years after Martin Luther King Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize, his sons, Martin Luther King III and Dexter Scott King say they urgently need to sell the Nobel medal to raise money to perpetuate his legacy.
The proposed sale, which has landed the brothers in a court battle with their sister, Bernice King, has — not for the first time — put the focus squarely on the finances of the three surviving King children and the institutions they control.
Much of that information is shielded from public view. But federal tax records show that Dexter King has derived by far the greatest income from the nonprofit side of their collective enterprise, the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.
Although he has lived in California since 2000, Dexter King was paid by the Atlanta nonprofit through at least 2012, with his salary and benefits averaging a little more than $175,000 a year. He stepped down as president and CEO in 2010 but remained as chairman. He has drawn more than $400,000 in severance pay since then.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution examined IRS Form 990s provided by the King Center covering the years 1996 to 2012. They show that Dexter King, who held a variety of titles, was the only member of the family to get paid, in some form, every year. His total compensation since 1996, including perks and benefits, totaled about $3 million.
Bernice King has never been paid by the Auburn Avenue nonprofit, although she took over from Dexter King as president and CEO in 2012. She has said she makes an adequate living on the speaking circuit.
King III has sporadically received income from the center. His total compensation since 1996 has been slightly more than $382,000, the records show.
Repeated calls and emails seeking comment from the brothers went unanswered. Bernice King declined to comment because she is fighting her brothers in court over the proposed sale of the Nobel and a Bible that belonged to their father.
‘What types of jobs do the brothers have?’
The other side of the siblings’ financial lives is King Inc. — or the King Estate. It is a private, for-profit corporation, run by Dexter King and King III and charged with protecting and marketing their father’s image. The three siblings are its sole shareholders.
According to previous court records, none of the three is paid as an officer of the estate, according to records of a previous court case. It’s not known whether they get regular shareholder distributions.
It’s also unclear how much each personally received from the $32 million sale of their father’s personal papers to the city of Atlanta in 2006. Dexter King, however, received a commission of more than 30 percent for brokering the deal, according to court testimony in 2009 by a lawyer representing Bernice King and King III.
Seemingly, the corporation’s workings are mysterious even to Bernice King and King III, its chairman. In 2008 they sued Dexter King, the corporation’s president, over access to its financial records, arguing that he was intentionally hiding the books.
That case was settled in 2009 when a special custodian was installed to monitor the estate’s finances. But five years later, as the fight escalated over the Bible and Nobel, Bernice King and her attorneys strongly implied that she still knows very little about the business of King Inc.
Property records provide one more glimpse into the siblings’ finances.
In 2007 — a year after the estate sold the King papers — Dexter King purchased a 6,800-square-foot Malibu mansion on a 1.23-acre lot for $4.16 million, according to Los Angeles County tax records.
According to the Fulton County Board of Assessors, each of the Kings owns a home in Atlanta. Those dwellings are not extravagantly priced or in expensive neighborhoods.
King III’s home is valued at $263,2000; Bernice King’s home at $146,000; and Dexter King’s downtown condominium at $101,5000, according to tax records.
‘The driving force behind all this is Dexter’
The sale of their father’s papers, coupled with revenue that comes into the estate through licensing and royalties, gives the perception that the siblings are flush with cash. But are they?
“At the end of the day, (the brothers’ insistence on selling the Nobel and Bible) has to be about money,” said the Rev. Timothy McDonald III, senior pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta.
“The question is: what types of jobs do the brothers have?” said McDonald, who has tried to play mediator in the sibling’s recent conflict. “Where do they work? What has been their main source of income?
“Dexter’s income is solely the King legacy, either through the King Center or through the estate. Martin has tried to do things. He’s had foundations and other nonprofits, so he has not solely depended on the King legacy. The driving force behind all of this is Dexter, and he’s driving Martin.”
In a February pretrial hearing, William Hill, who represents the King Estate, implied that it is in financial straits.
He pleaded with Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney to force Bernice King to immediately turn over the peace prize and Bible so they could be sold quickly. Bernice King did relinquish the items under court order; they are under the control of the court until the lawsuit goes to trial this fall.
“These opportunities (to sell) are fleeting. … My client tells you that to be able to move on this opportunity is important to the continued existence of King Inc.,” Hill said. “And you know that (King Inc.) is aggressive in protecting Dr. King’s legacy, and that entails hiring lawyers, hiring law firms, filing lawsuits and, you know, your honor, lawyers charge too much money — all the time.”
In a later interview, Hill drew a distinction between the estate’s financial position and that of Dexter King and King III. “We weren’t talking about the brothers,” Hill said. “We were talking about the estate.”
Asked directly whether the brothers were broke, Hill said, “I won’t go through any details other than what we talked about in court.”
Last Wednesday, McBurney removed Hill as an attorney in the case because of his involvement in earlier litigation involving the Kings.
‘This is their inheritance’
Throughout his career, Martin Luther King Jr. lived frugally, careful not to give the impression that he was profiting from the civil rights movement, said King scholar Clayborne Carson. He depended mostly on royalties from his books and recordings of his speeches to feed his family.
When King was awarded the Nobel Prize, he kept the 23-carat gold medal but donated the $54,123 prize money – roughly $410,000 today — to the movement.
“He could well have been a wealthy man, but he wasn’t,” said Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. The history professor estimates that at the time of King’s 1968 death, he was worth between “$50,000 and $60,000 — and most of that was probably in his home.”
But Carson said King’s children should not be expected to conform to his model.
“They are living in a different time, and they are not faced with the same challenges that he faced in terms of trying to maintain a certain image in respect to a movement,” he said.
“That is their inheritance. If you inherited a house from your father, and you wanted to sell it and move somewhere, you would resent someone looking over your shoulder and telling you that you couldn’t.”
Author John Blake, who chronicled the lives of several heirs of prominent civil rights figures in his book, “Children of the Movement,” said the Kings are not unlike their contemporaries who have worked to recoup earnings they believe were stolen from their parents.
“Their father was a victim of racial hatred, and they see themselves as victims who deserve economic compensation for their loss,” said Blake, a former AJC reporter, who now covers race for CNN.com. “A lot of these children felt their parents gave so much and received so little in return.
“There are no retirement plans for civil rights activists. A lot of these families weren’t left with much.”
On the other hand, he said, “critics will say you can’t treat Dr. King like an American treasure that belongs to everyone, then also treat him like Google stock that belongs to the family. I don’t think the King children navigate that tension well.”
Staff writers Shelia M. Poole and J. Scott Trubey contributed to this article.