By Maria Saporta

In his first comments since the latest legal dispute among his siblings, Martin Luther King III said his “sole focus now is resolving this issue.”

King III and his brother, Dexter King, filed a legal action against their sister, Bernice King, CEO of the King Center, on Aug. 28. That was the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington when their father made his most famous — “I Have A Dream” speech.

“I’m encouraged by the dialogue between the parties,” King III said in a telephone interview. “I’m speaking with Dexter, and I’m encouraged there’s going to be dialogue with everyone involved. I know that Bernice wants to get this resolved. I’m committed to getting this resolved, and I would hope it would not be in court.”

Although King III would not answer questions about the legal filing — including why it was filed on the 28th, he did imply that he was not fully engaged on the specifics having to do with the case.

Martin Luther King III, Bernice King and Dexter King on Aug. 28 as legal case was being filed by two brothers against their sister (Photo by Maria Saporta)
Martin Luther King III, Bernice King and Dexter King on Aug. 28 in Washington as the legal case was being filed by the two brothers against their sister (Photo by Maria Saporta)

“Prior to the 50th, my focus was on the March,” King III said. “I was the primary convener, along with Al Sharpton, in mobilizing the March on Aug. 24.”

The legal filing of the King Estate Inc., owner of the “name, image, likeness, recorded voice, and memorabilia of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” against the King Center claimed the Center was not properly caring for its assets.

It also said it would terminate the license allowing it to use the name, image of King unless CEO Bernice King was placed on administrative leave and that two members be removed from the board — Andrew Young and Alveda King.

Bernice King said she was surprised and shocked about the legal filing, especially because of the timing.

“I did not know it had occurred on the 28th,,” she said in an in-person interview on Sept. 3 at Paschal’s with Andrew Young. “It was disappointing to me that it happened on that particular day. It is still a question mark to me.”

Dexter King did not respond to several emails sent to him over the last few days.

This dispute is just the latest in a series that has happened over the past six years — a musical chairs of three people and two chairs.

Martin Luther King III and Bernice King had filed suit against Dexter King in 2008 because they were concerned he was not sharing all the financial records related to the King Estate, of which he is the CEO but they are all co-owners.

A judge appointed a custodian to run the King Estate on a temporary basis, but given the overlapping relationships between the King Estate and the King Center, the custodian also became involved with the Center — a nonprofit.

Martin Luther King III became CEO of the Center in 2010, and he was able to forge a partnership with JP Morgan-Chase to digitize volumes of the Center’s archives. He also became to develop plans for a $100 million renovation of the facility.

But then the board in December 2011 decided to make Bernice King (obviously with the blessing of Dexter King who was serving as chairman) the CEO of the Center, telling Martin III that he could remain as president. But Martin decided instead to resign as president. But he remained on the King Center board.

So in the past six years, there has been every possible combination of alliances between the siblings — with one exception — a working relationship between the three of them.

“I want to resolve this as quickly as possible, as soon as humanly possible,” Martin Luther King III said. “I’m encouraged in that I believe that there is a willingness by all parties. Once this is resolved, I don’t expect it to ever happen again. We have got to resolve this. The sooner and quicker it is resolved, the more quickly we can move forward in promoting the legacy globally.”

Bernice King, however, reached by phone Sunday night, was more cautious.

“I have always been an advocate for open, honest, transparent, genuine and sincere dialogue,” she said. “That’s how I’ve been from the very beginning. But what I’m not open to is bullying tactics.”

She said it was unfortunate that the energy that is now going into resolving the issue could not have taken place prior to the case having been filed against the King Center. The proper place for that discussion to have taken place would have been during a King Center board meeting because they are all board members.

But the King Center board has not had a meeting since its last annual meeting in August, 2012. A meeting was scheduled on the afternoon of Sept. 3, but three of the six members — Martin King, Dexter King and their aunt Christine King Farris — didn’t participate in the conference call.

The other three board members are Bernice King, Alveda King and Andrew Young.

Martin King III explained that the reason he didn’t participate was because he understood Bernice King was going to try to get Andrew Young elected as chairman — removing Dexter King, and he felt that would have only escalated the situation.

Bernice King explained that she felt Dexter King should not serve as CEO of the King Estate and Chairman of the King Center while he is pushing the lawsuit of the King Estate against the King Center. She said that was a conflict of interest.

She also said she had not spoken to either of her brothers about the claim since it had been filed on Aug. 28.

“I’m currently not aware of all parties talking as there’s not been any outreach towards me,” Bernice King said Sunday evening. “However, I’m open to it. I still don’t understand why we are in court to begin with.”

Martin Luther King III said he has been talking to Andrew Young, who has been allied with Bernice King, to find a possible area of consensus.

“My involvement has always been to try to reconcile the differences,” Young said. “That’s not always easy. In fact, it’s never easy.”

Later Young said he had talked to Martin King III,  who “was concerned that it not get out of hand.”

The actual legal issues are a bit thorny. The King Estate is arguing that it can terminate the King Center’s ability to use the “name, image, likeness, recorded voice and memorabilia of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., including the rights of publicity;” plus all of King’s writings and speeches as well as his remains and the coffin contained within his crypt.

But the King Center, founded by King’s widow — Coretta Scott King — has always used her husband’s name, image and likeness as part of its offerings.

“This is an unfortunate situation that has to be resolved,” Bernice King said, adding that two issues will need to be fixed — that the current King Center board be expanded and that the Center’s use of her father’s intellectual property and image should continue as it has since it was founded in 1968.

Both Bernice King and Martin King III said the divisions in the family have been hard on them, and they would love to be able to work through them.

“It pains me that our family has not been able to get beyond these family business issues — especially the public aspects of them,” Bernice King said. “I’ve always been an advocate for love and harmony in my family.”

Maria Saporta, executive editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state. From 2008 to 2020, she wrote weekly columns...

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  1. “‘I’m committed to getting this resolved; and I would hope it would not be in court”
    But I sued anyway. Yet another unseemly, public round of the King children airing their dirty linen and avarice. But, it keeps some lawyers busy.

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