Selling out the King legacy

MLK Jr.'s surviving children locked public battle over Peace Prize

Bernice King
Bernice King

Fifty years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work as the leader of the civil rights movement. Instead of using the prize money for the material advancement of his family or himself, the late civil rights leader donated it to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other movements dedicated to overturning segregation in America.

A generation later, Rev. King’s three surviving children are locked in an acrimonious public fight over the fate of the prize their father brought home from Oslo in 1964, and his traveling Bible used by President Obama during his second inauguration.

Rev. King’s sons Dexter and Martin Luther King III and their sister Rev. Bernice King comprise the board of the Martin Luther King Estate. Last year, the siblings took a vote on whether to sell their father’s Nobel Peace Prize and his Bible to the highest bidder. The market for historically significant items from the civil rights era is lucrative, but the King brothers should not try to sell a priceless legacy for the entire nation.

Ms. King was, rightly, horrified by the idea of profiting from objects that she considers both family heirlooms and sacred artifacts of the civil rights struggle. Nonetheless in a two-to-one vote, her brothers voted to sell the items.

Ms. King, who has physical possession of the objects, has refused to turn them over to her brothers. They sued her for violating the will of the estate’s voting majority. A judge in Georgia’s Fulton County Superior Court heard their arguments and ordered Ms. King to turn the items over to the King Estate for safekeeping in a safety deposit box that only the court would have the key for until the issue of possession is resolved.

Ms. King is attempting to persuade her brothers to change their minds. Many in the civil rights community stand with her and are aghast at the greed of her brothers, who are prominent civil rights leaders in their own right.

There’s no doubt that had it ever occurred to him, Rev. King could’ve profited from his fame, but he chose instead to be a humble foot soldier in the battle for racial equality. If anything, his Nobel Prize and his traveling Bible belong to all Americans.

A more fitting place for the items would be at a civil rights museum or at the Smithsonian, where everyone could enjoy them. They shouldn’t be the object of a tug-of-war.