Dexter King on court fight: I love my sister, but this is business

For nearly a year, attorneys for the estate of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. have argued that heirs Dexter Scott King and Martin Luther King III — in strong opposition to their sister Bernice King — wanted to sell their father’s traveling Bible and 1964 Nobel Peace Prize.

But on Tuesday, Dexter King made a rare public appearance and was noncommittal about whether he still or ever wanted to sell the relics, which his sister says are “sacred.”

Asked the question outside a Fulton County courtroom, Dexter King never directly said he would sell the items if a judge granted possession to the King estate. But he never said he wouldn’t either.

“This is not an issue of wanting to sell them,” Dexter King said. “This is an issue of ownership and retrieving property. An individual has sequestered property that belongs to the (King estate) corporation. We just want it back in its proper place. We want it properly protected, properly preserved and ultimately, at some point, developing a plan that deals with accessibility.”

Neither King III nor Bernice King was in court Tuesday. The Bible and the peace prize are in a safe-deposit box controlled by Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney, who is presiding over the legal wrangling of ownership.

Tuesday marked another step — albeit a small one — toward a resolution. In court, McBurney listened as both sides discussed procedural motions.

Bernice King, the youngest of Coretta and Martin Luther King Jr.’s three surviving children, has fought to keep the items, calling them “sacred.”

The brothers, citing a 1995 agreement that gave the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr. Inc. ownership of all their father’s property, initially voted 2-1 in favor of selling the items. Bernice King voted against it in what she described as a hastily called meeting.

McBurney did not make a ruling Tuesday.

“The judge could still grant summary judgment or we can still go to trial,” said attorney Nicole Wade, who represents the King estate in the case. “But I am always open to a settlement.”

A full trial is scheduled for Feb. 16. But scheduling conflicts might move it back at least a week.

All of this is happening just days before Martin Luther King Jr. would have turned 86. King’s birthday is Jan. 15 and will be observed as a federal holiday on Jan. 19.

The King Center, run by Bernice King, has been planning a host of events to honor the civil rights legend, including an address by former President Bill Clinton. Indeed, celebrations are taking place all over the country.

Dexter King said the juxtaposition is like “apples and oranges.”

“One thing has to do with an annual commemoration. The other is a one-time action that has been proceeding along according to the court’s schedule,” Dexter King said, adding that he doesn’t pay attention to criticism that he and his siblings have received.

“I don’t take it to heart. No one agrees 100 percent on anything. That is the beauty of diversity. The reality is the King family should not be penalized because it has the need to seek redress in other forums.”

Over the past decade, there have been at least five lawsuits pitting two King siblings against one.

The reclusive Dexter King, who lives in California and rarely returns to Atlanta, didn’t speak in court. But flanked by his new wife, he spoke with members of the media for about 10 minutes after the hearing.

Several times he stressed that Dexter King the man is not being represented in court. Rather, he said, it is the King estate, for which he serves as president and CEO, that is at the heart of the case.

That makes matters all the more murky. The King estate is the for-profit arm of the family empire. The estate controls the intellectual and physical property of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, and the three siblings are its sole trustees.

“The (King estate) corporation ultimately determines what will happen,” Dexter King said.

But one of the sticking points during Tuesday’s hearing was if and how the siblings should meet to talk about the case. Should it be as a family or as a corporation?

Dexter King said he is willing to sit down with his sister to reach a settlement, but he couldn’t recall the last time the siblings were together.

“I am not angry,” he said about his relationship with Bernice King. “She is my sister and I love her. But this is a business issue.”

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