Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Children in New Court Battle Over Estate
By Kate Brumback
As the nation and world celebrated the memory of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, his two sons and daughter were caught up in their latest legal fight over control of their father’s legacy.
On Aug. 28, his estate filed a complaint in an Atlanta court asking a judge to stop a nonprofit devoted to King’s memory from using his image, likeness and memorabilia. The date was the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the slain civil rights icon’s famous speech.
The estate is run by King’s sons, Martin Luther King III and Dexter King, while The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change is run by King’s remaining living daughter, Bernice King.
The estate claims in the filing that it is the owner of the worldwide rights and property interests involving King’s name, image, likeness, recorded voice and memorabilia. That includes his writings, speeches, sermons and letters, as well as the remains and coffin in his crypt, the complaint says.
The estate in March 2007 granted a nonexclusive, worldwide, royalty-free license to the center to use King’s name, likeness and image and to publicly exhibit his writings and spoken words at the center, the complaint says.
The estate supports the center’s work and has been its largest financial contributor for the past decade, but the relationship between the two “has recently become strained, resulting in a total breakdown in communication and transparency,” the complaint says.
An audit and review of the center’s practices and procedures conducted by the estate in April revealed that the care and storage of the physical property is unacceptable as it could be damaged by fire, water, mold, mildew or theft, the complaint says. After failed meetings and communications, the estate sent a letter to the center on Aug. 10 saying it would terminate the license at the end of a 30-day notice period, the complaint says.
The estate told the center in the letter that it could prevent the termination by: putting CEO Bernice King on administrative leave pending the final outcome of the audit investigation; give the estate approval power over the use, care and treatment of the memorabilia until another solution can be implemented; and remove Alveda King, the civil rights leader’s niece, and former Atlanta mayor and civil rights veteran Andrew Young from the center’s board of directors.
The estate says Alveda King tried to impede the audit investigation and that Young willfully infringed the estate’s intellectual property rights.
Stephen Ryan, a lawyer for Bernice King, said in a letter on Aug. 14 to The King Center’s general counsel that her brothers were exercising their majority control over the estate “to take actions that directly harm the King Center,” with the goal of hindering or ending the center’s current name and operations.
The King brothers have disregarded their obligations to the nonprofit center in favor of their own financial interests, and their actions risk tarnishing and reducing their father’s legacy, Ryan wrote. Their actions are an effort to force the center’s board to give them control, and are “totally inconsistent with their duties to the King Center, and the spirit of their father and mother, the founder of the King Center,” Ryan wrote.
King was assassinated in Memphis in April 1968. His wife, Coretta Scott King, died in 2006 and Yolanda King, the Kings’ eldest child, died in 2007. That left the three remaining siblings as the sole shareholders and directors of their father’s estate, but their relationship deteriorated over legal battles.
Bernice King and Martin Luther King III sued Dexter King in 2008 to force him to open the books of their father’s estate. The lawsuit claimed Dexter King, the estate’s administrator, had refused to provide documents concerning the estate’s operations and that he had shut them out of decisions.
The siblings avoided a public jury trial over their legal feud by agreeing to a settlement in October 2009 and a judge in March 2010 dismissed most of the remaining legal claims in the dispute between them. All three siblings said at the time that they looked forward to mending the rifts and that significant progress had been made with settlement.