In a scene reminiscent of a Shakespearean tragedy, Bernice King stood in her father’s pulpit Thursday to both disavow her brothers’ values and claim her love for them.
Flanked by supporters who included lions of the civil rights movement, the youngest child of Coretta and Martin Luther King Jr. declared: ““I love them dearly. I love Martin and Dexter, but we are different people, with different minds and different ideologies and, most importantly, a different relationship with God.”
At issue is the brothers’ wish to sell two items Bernice King called “sacred” — their father’s Bible and the Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded in 1964. Last week, Martin Luther King III and Dexter Scott King sued their sister in Fulton County Superior Court, demanding that she relinquish possession of the items.
It is not the first time the siblings have been at odds, or that their differences have spilled over into the courts. But this time, the feelings are raw and the words cut right to the bone.
“I take this strong position for my father, because Daddy is not here to say for himself, ‘My Bible and my medals are not to be sold,’” Bernice King said at the press conference inside historic Ebenezer Baptist Church.
“I stand here in his stead, as his biological and spiritual heir, to say they should not be sold because they are sacred. And I want it noted that there was at least one heir who tried to further the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.”
King III and Dexter King have maintained a public silence since the latest lawsuit came to light. Repeated calls to them and their attorneys were not returned this week.
In their lawsuit, they claim that Bernice King has “secreted and sequestered” the Bible and Nobel medal in violation of a 1995 agreement that gave the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr. Inc. ownership of all their father’s property.
Bernice King said that although she will not turn over the items, she is not hiding them either.
And she said that despite her brothers’ public silence, it would be wrong to suggest that the three of them have severed communication.
“I am going to always be associated with them, they are my family. So this is extremely painful,” she said, calling herself an “aggrieved, yet hopeful sister.”
She showed The Atlanta Journal-Constitution a Jan. 20 letter addressed to her from King III, in which he requested a meeting on Jan. 22.
“The purpose of this special meeting is to discuss and vote on whether to offer for purchase at a private sale the Nobel Peace Prize and the King Bible,” King III wrote. “And if the vote is to proceed with such a sale, to identify the person. Within two days of the affirmative vote, the Nobel Peace Prize and the King Bible shall be physically delivered.”
Bernice King said the three siblings did meet by conference call on Jan. 22 and voted 2-1 to sell the items.
But she vowed she would not comply with the vote. “They won’t be sold on my watch,” she said.
That sentiment resonated strongly with those who gathered around her at Ebenezer.
Cassandra Harris, a retired educator, was so upset by reports of the proposed sale that she drove from her Ellenwood home to be at the church.
“I’m just deeply disturbed,” she said. “There is no price value on those items. I can’t imagine what someone is offering. The grandkids need to be able to put their hands on those items.”
The Rev. C.T. Vivian, who was recently awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom, echoed those feelings.
“The first thing I said when I heard they wanted to sell the Nobel Peace Prize is that they have no right to sell it,” Vivian said. “Martin would have never thought of selling it. These things were given to a people for their progress for mankind.”
Bernice King read a letter of support from the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery. She said Ambassador Andrew Young, who is on the King Center board, was not able to attend.
The Rev. Timothy McDonald III, senior pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church, said he and others have tried to reach out to the brothers to spur a dialogue, but to no avail.
McDonald said the purpose of Bernice King’s press conference was twofold: for her to state her position, and as a demonstration to her brothers of widespread opposition to a sale of the Nobel and Bible. “We hope this show of community support will weigh heavily on the hearts of Martin and Dexter,” he said.
Harris said she wanted to hear from Bernice King how things got this bad and why everything was so public. “She cleared it up for me,” she said. “I just wish the brothers were here so I could hear their side.”
When the event was over, as Bernice King walked away from the pulpit, she addressed her parents, choking back tears.
“Mommy and Daddy, I am so sorry it came to this,” she said.
Staff writer Shelia M. Poole contributed to this article.