By Maria Saporta
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney ruled Wednesday that Bernice King should turn over her late father’s Nobel Peace Prize award and her personal Bible to a court-controlled safe deposit box.
The judge said he would hold onto the keys of that safe deposit box until the case has been settled.
Bernice King’s two brothers — Dexter King and Martin Luther King III — have taken legal action against her for not turning over those two prized possessions so they can sell them to a private buyer.
So far she has refused to turn them over to her brothers because she disagrees with such a sale.
The three of them are the only living directors of the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr. Inc. (also called King Inc.) following the death of their mother — Coretta Scott King, and their sister — Yolanda King.
Eric Barnum, the attorney for Bernice King, argued Wednesday that the Nobel Peace Prize award and the Bible may not even belong to the Estate.
The judge, however, said that based on the information he has received so far, he believes in the “likelihood” that the award and the Bible are owned by the Estate. So the judge said the items should be turned over to a safe deposit box belonging to the Estate, but that only he would have access to the contents of the box until the case has been settled.
The question now is whether Bernice King will comply with the judge’s order — a question shared in an email exchange with Bernice King’s spokeswoman De’Leice Drane.
“I received your email,” Drane responded. “Spoke with Bernice and she has to speak with her attorney before responding to any questions. We will be in touch.”
Civil rights leader C.T. Vivian, who is supporting Bernice King’s efforts to prevent the sale of those two items, sat through the two-and-a-half hours of Wednesday’s hearing.
“Let’s hope it is going to be fair in every possible way, but the important thing is that this is only the legal part,” Vivian said. “We have no way in this room to deal with the moral and spiritual nature of this issue. The important party here is the public.”
When asked whether Bernice King should refuse to turn over the Nobel Peace Prize award and the Bible to the court, Vivian responded: “That has to be her decision. Historically that is not beyond consideration.”
This legal proceedings on the dispute over the possible sale of the award and the Bible are only the latest in differences between the siblings over the handling of issues related to the for-profit Estate and the running of the family-controlled nonprofit — the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change.
Bernice King currently is CEO of the King Center, a position she has held for more than two years. In a separate lawsuit filed last August, however, her brothers are trying to remove her as the CEO partly because they said the Center is not taking proper care of its assets.
(Interestingly enough, in December 2011, Bernice and Dexter King were making similar charges against their brother, Martin, when pushing him out as the King Center’s CEO).
Until recently, the Bible has been on display at the King Center. It was removed so that President Barack Obama have his hand on the Bible as he took his oath of office during his second inauguration in January. The president added his signature to the Bible on the day of 2014 King holiday — presumably only adding to the Bible’s value.
During the proceedings, it was clear Judge McBurney understood the significance of the items under litigation.
William Hill, the attorney for the King Estate representing Dexter and Martin King, said they needed control of the items so they could sell them to a prospective buyer and not “lose a significant opportunity.” He went on to say that there are not a “plethora” of potential buyers, adding that it took 10 years to arrange the sale of the collection of King’s personal papers.
“I’m telling you these items would be for public display,” Hill said. “These opportunities are fleeting.”
Hill said that not selling these items would cause harm to the Estate, and that Bernice King has a fiduciary responsibility as a director to not financially damage the for-profit company.
McBurney summed up Hill’s position saying the “proceeds to the sale of those items are crucial to the Estate’s continued viability.”
McBurney then questioned Barnum on whether Bernice King had asked her brothers about who was interested in buying the items and for how much.
Those details were secondary because Barnum said that Bernice King strongly believes Bible and the Peace Prize “should not be sold” because of their sacred value.
“You don’t sell the Coke recipe,” said McBurney, apparently sympathizing with that sentiment. “I understand the public’s interest in these items, that these are cultural relics, not just for the United States but internationally. I did not mean to trivialize this by comparing it to the Coke recipe. I recognize there’s uniquely a public interest with the Bible.”
Barnum also described the fear that Bernice King had in turning over the items to her brothers.
“Once these items are sold, these items are gone,” he said, adding that there is no iron clad contract that once the items were sold that they would be on public display, especially if the buyer ended up selling the items to someone else.
“This is a money grab — plain and simple,” Barnum said. “Dexter and Martin want to sell.”
In responding to Bernice King’s fiduciary responsibility as a director of the King Estate, Barnum said there were other ways to raise revenue from those items short of selling them — for example, they could be part of a traveling exhibit, generating revenues along the way.
“You don’t sell the most prized assets of the Estate,” Barnum said, assuming the Court eventually ruled that they belonged to King Inc.
“We need to have a discussion about this sale, whether or not this is a proper vote. The question of whether the Estate has acted in the best interest of the corporation has to be aired out… Clearly there is a public interest in where these items go.”
He compared this transaction to the $32 million sale of the King papers to the Atlanta community (now housed at Morehouse College and to be on rotating display at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights).
“It’s public knowledge that the papers were sold,” Barnum said. “Once the papers were sold, there was a distribution of those assets.”
(But the public has never been informed about how those $32 million were distributed among the siblings and among those who helped broker that transaction).
Barnum did say to the Judge that “we can have a truncated trial calendar to resolve these issues” of ownership of the items and the process of how decisions are made among the three members of the King Estate.
According to filings brought up Wednesday, when the Estate was originally established in with five members, by-laws said that all decisions required a vote of at least three of the members.
Now that two of the original members have passed away, does it mean that only a simple majority is required (two siblings against one) or does it mean that all three members need a unanimous vote before action can be taken. Hill argued in Court that the Estate has been operating with the assumption that it only needs two votes to move forward.
Although McBurney did seem to agree with Hill on the “likelihood” that the Estate will prevail as the owner of the two items, he did not agree that there was an urgency to turn over Nobel Peace Prize award and the Bible at this time.
While there may not be a “plethora” of potential buyers, McBurney added “I don’t find that there’s a paucity of (potential) purchasers.” That’s why he did not believe the Court needed to act “hastily” to turn the items over to the Estate.
“I think it is prudent that the two items be stored together in a safe deposit box,” McBurney said. “It will be the Estate’s deposit box. (But) the Court will hold the keys to it. The two items will not be allowed to go anywhere” until the case has been decided.
It is unclear by when the items need to be transferred to a “neutral” safe deposit box.
And it is not yet known whether Bernice King will be willing to turn over the items knowing that according to the well-worn cliché — “possession is nine-tenths of the law.”