In June of 2008, Bernice King, the youngest daughter of Coretta and Martin Luther King Jr., went to an Atlanta bank to view some family heirlooms hidden in a safe deposit box.
The box originally belonged to Yolanda King, who had died May 15, 2007, leaving her younger sister in charge of their mother’s estate. She had been to the safe deposit box before, but remembers that for the first time she noticed a yellow envelope that contained several letters.
“One was a letter my mother wrote to my father,” Bernice King said. “What some might consider a ‘love letter.’ When I saw this, I was like ‘wow,’ I had never seen anything written like this — in love letter language.”
Bernice King said she put the letter back in the box, mentioned its whereabouts to her attorney, and moved on.
That letter, as well as others, and all of the contents in the safe deposit box are the center of a ongoing and increasingly ugly legal battle that is pitting Bernice King and her brother Martin Luther King III against their brother Dexter King over control of the King legacy and estate.
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The siblings claim Dexter King has kept them in the dark regarding the financial operations of King Inc. by not answering their questions and refusing to conduct shareholders meetings. In a countersuit Dexter King has asked a judge to force Bernice King to turn over their mother’s personal papers — including those love letters.
On Monday, Bernice and King III sat through more than 13 hours of court motions, testimony and proceedings. It was in a separate, evening hearing, led by a special master — a court adjunct appointed to make sure the court order is being followed — where a sliver of how bad a family feud can get was revealed.
In the hearing, Lin Wood, an attorney for Dexter King, argued that Bernice King willfully ignored a court order by not revealing the contents of the safe deposit box.
“Regardless of what your last name is, if you have willfully withheld then you must suffer the consequences,” said Wood, adding that several times under oath, Bernice King never revealed the existence of the safe deposit box. “When she knew that a special master was appointed to find the letters, she knew the love letters were the focus. But she did not tell us.”
Wood said aside from one of Bernice King’s former attorneys, who is no longer on the case, King III also knew about the letters and refused to reveal them.
“Martin has been a party in his silence,” Wood said. “He had a choice and he has to live with his decisions.
King Inc. and Dexter King asked the special master William Hill to impose serious sanctions, including that all of the claims made by Bernice and Martin King be thrown out, with the only claims remaining being those of the company against Bernice and Martin King.
At the end of Monday’s marathon hearing, Hill, asked Dexter King’s legal team to prepare a proposed recommendation for him to submit to Judge Glanville showing that the siblings had willfully and intentionally violated their discovery obligations by failing to disclose the location or existence of love letters.
“Bernice King did not conceal anything,” said her current attorney Charles Mathis. “She thought she was doing what she was supposed to do when she told her first lawyer. There was not an intentional failure to disclose.”
Bernice King said that if she failed to reveal the existence of the safe deposit box it was because she assumed her former attorney would. But she added that in going through her mother’s papers, she had to determine what to turn over, while protecting her mother’s privacy.
Aside from the letters the safe deposit box contains King’s Nobel Peace Prize, jewelry and keepsakes.
“If there is anything I am guilty of I am guilty of loving my mother. Guilty of trying to do the right thing. Guilty of trying to uphold her legacy and protect her privacy,” King said. “I was trying to manage all of that and protect the court order. I know how private my mother was. Even to us.”
Bernice King said when she was ordered to produce her mother’s papers she turned over some 900 boxes. Wood said that King said the love letters were somewhere in the sea of boxes, when she knew they weren’t.
“I have always tried to do the right thing in this case,” she said. “I told my attorney on more than one occasion about the items in the safe deposit box. I never told my lawyer to not tell the special master about the safe deposit box.”
But Hill wasn’t buying King’s argument and was candid in his belief that Bernice and Martin have not been truthful in the proceedings.
“I am very concerned about the conduct of Martin and Bernice King,” Hill said