It’s come to this: The children of Martin Luther King Jr. are at war over his Nobel Peace Prize.
In the latest twist in an increasingly ugly legal struggle, Martin Luther King III and Dexter Scott King are trying to force their sister, Bernice King, to turn over their father’s Nobel medal and one of his personal Bibles to the corporation that manages the King estate.
Bernice King is scheduled to hold a press conference at 11 a.m. Thursday at the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church. Repeated calls on Tuesday and Wednesday to King III and Dexter King were not returned.
Bernice King’s appearance will be the first time one of the siblings have spoken on record about the latest lawsuit. But in a statement released Tuesday, she spoke loudly, saying that her father would be “turning in his grave,” if he knew what was going on.
Long-time supporters of the family, sadly, agree.
“If there is such a thing as people turning over in their grave, then both Dr. King and Mrs. King are twirling,” said Xernona Clayton, a long-time friend of the Kings. “They would be so disappointed if they knew their children were acting like this. And so am I.”
Alveda King, a member of the King Center’s Board of Trustees, said her “heart breaks,” as she watches her cousins fight. But she is siding with Bernice King, adding that “the brothers seek to silence a sister’s voice.”
“First there was the political jockeying with the Bible,” Alveda King said. “Now to be forced to wonder what new fate King’s Bible and Nobel Prize might face. To wonder what agenda these cherished heirlooms will be used to promote. This is a cruel burden for Bernice, and indeed many, to bear.”
On Friday, the brothers filed a complaint in Fulton County Superior Court, asking a judge to force Bernice King to relinquish the items. The complaint says she has “secreted and sequestered” them in violation of a 1995 agreement that gave the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr. Inc. ownership of all their father’s property.
“It is in the public interest … to uphold and enforce valid contracts and to allow the [King estate] to fully exercise its rights of ownership,” the lawsuit says.
Bernice King says her brothers intend to sell the Bible and Nobel medal – a move she vehemently opposes.
“Not only am I appalled and utterly ashamed, I am frankly disappointed that they would even entertain the thought of selling these precious items. It reveals desperation beyond comprehension,” she said Tuesday in a lengthy statement.
The latest lawsuit comes on the heels of an August complaint lodged by the brothers to force Bernice out of her position as CEO of the King Center. That suit also targets their cousin Alveda King and Ambassador Andrew Young, who serve on the center’s board of directors.
The sibling rivalries have gradually intensified since the 2006 death of Coretta Scott King and the 2007 death of the eldest King daughter, Yolanda.
In 2009, Bernice King and King III found themselves in court against Dexter King over control of the estate. A judge eventually installed a custodian to temporarily run the estate and avoid a lengthy, embarrassing jury trial.
Their public squabbles have pained friends and admirers of their parents. It is especially galling, Clayton said, that siblings are preparing to fight in court over the highest honor anyone can win for promoting peace.
“I had no idea they would have this kind of venom that makes them want to hurt each other as they are doing through this process,” she said.
Bernice King said that on Jan. 20, the day the nation observed her father’s birth, her brothers told her that they looking for buyers for their father’s 1964 Nobel Peace Prize and the Bible Barack Obama used when he was sworn into his second term as president.
She said the items have been under her care in a safe and secure location.
Her brothers’ decision to sue her is “extremely troubling,” and “grieves me greatly,” she said. Parting with this priceless memorabilia should not be an option.”
If King’s 23-carat gold Nobel Prize medal is sold, it will not be the first one. The first sold at public auction was the 1975 physics prize awarded to atomic scientist Aage Niels Bohr, which went in November, 2012, for about $50,000.
After that, the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, won by Francis Crick for his discovery of DNA, was sold by Heritage Auctions for more than $2 million. The buyer was Jack Wang, who heads a Shanghai-based biomedical company and said he would use it to promote science in China.
Sandra Palomino, director of historical manuscripts at Heritage Auctions, said the initial projected price was up to $5 million, because of Crick’s importance.
“Of the three major bidders that were going after it, none were collectors. They were all involved in some aspect of medical research,” Palomino said.
Similarly, she said, she would expect Dr. King’s medal to go to someone with an abiding interest in the causes he championed.
“Should Dr. King’s medal come to auction, that is probably what is going to happen,” she said. “But the challenge of Dr. King’s medal is having to come up with a value. It is of such significant value that you can’t really put a price on it. If I were somebody with the means to do it, I would go as high as I needed to to buy it.”
Meanwhile, Clayton said those close to the King family are at a loss to understand why Dr. King’s children are so dramatically at odds.
“I wish I knew. There is no simple answer,” she said. “Many of us have tried to talk to them, and I thought that all of this was well behind them. It pains me greatly to see them have this kind of strife. But they are adults and there is nothing we can do to live their lives.
“But that doesn’t negate the hurt.”