Nothing will ever tarnish the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who transformed a nation. But his squabbling heirs seem to be trying their best.
I realize these are harsh words for a family that has suffered more than most. But King’s sons and daughter need to be reminded – yet again – that their father’s words and deeds belong not just to his descendants but to history as well. The King siblings have a responsibility not to treat this precious inheritance like some shiny knickknack someone found in the attic.
In the latest round of internecine warfare, Martin Luther King III and Dexter King have filed a lawsuit seeking to compel their sister, Bernice King, to hand over their father’s Nobel Peace Prize medal, which he received in 1964, and the Bible he carried with him whenever he traveled.
The suit claims that Bernice King has “secreted and sequestered” these objects in violation of a 1995 agreement that the entire inheritance would be held by an entity called the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr. Inc., which the two brothers control.
The suit, which was filed in Fulton County Superior Court in Atlanta, came to light this week when Bernice King issued a blistering statement accusing her brothers of wanting to sell “our father’s most prized possessions” to a “private buyer.” The lawsuit makes no mention of any planned sale, and the brothers have thus far declined to comment.
While Dexter King and Martin Luther King III control their father’s estate, Bernice King is chief executive of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. Both the King Estate and the King Center claim the right and responsibility to safeguard the King legacy.
“My brothers’ decision to sue me is drastic and grieves me greatly,” Bernice King said in her statement. “I have absolutely no desire to be in court or to fight yet another public battle.”
“Yet another” is correct: This is by no means the first time the siblings have taken their squabbling to court.
In 2008, Bernice and Martin joined forces to sue Dexter for allegedly misusing or wasting funds from the King Estate. Dexter sued Bernice and Martin, claiming that they had misused assets belonging to the King Center, including a $55,000 Lincoln Navigator given to the center that he claimed Martin had converted to personal use. Those suits were eventually settled out of court, sparing the siblings the indignity of a circus-like trial.
Last August, Dexter and Martin sued in an attempt to remove Bernice as head of the King Center, even threatening to withdraw legal permission for the center to use King’s name and likeness. Now comes the new lawsuit that prompted Bernice’s angry reply. My guess is that eventually we’ll see a new settlement, a new reconciliation and a new pledge to move forward in harmony – until the next ugly episode.
If I were the judge hearing the latest suit, I would order all three of the siblings to take a moment to reflect on the two “sacred items” presently at issue.
They wouldn’t get very far into King’s well-worn Bible before coming across the archetypal story of sibling rivalry: Cain and Abel. They would be reminded that by slaying his brother, Cain brought eternal misery and woe upon himself – and that, yes, each of us is our brother’s keeper.
And if the three Kings would examine the Nobel medal, hold it in their hands, feel its weight, consider its meaning, they would surely be reminded that their father’s dream was one of harmony and brotherhood. Fighting bitterly over an award dedicated to peace only serves to mock their father’s legacy, not honor it.
I’m actually sympathetic toward the King siblings. In effect, their father was taken from them twice – once by an assassin’s bullet and once by his canonization as one of the great figures in modern history. They have the burden of knowing it will be impossible to live up to their father’s legacy – and the burden of still having to try.
What they need to understand is that their father didn’t climb to the mountaintop alone. He didn’t act as if he were entitled to anything, didn’t seek to silence those who disagreed with him, didn’t claim to know all the answers. In times of struggle and triumph, he sang “We Shall Overcome” – and reached out to those beside him, calling them brothers and sisters, to join hands.
Reach Eugene Robinson at firstname.lastname@example.org.