For years, they were the picture of solidarity: the four children of Martin Luther King Jr. carrying on the legacy of the civil rights icon.
But a lawsuit over how their father’s estate is being run has left a rift in one of the world’s most famous families. And it may now be up to a judge to get the King children in the same room.
“Strong parents have strong children, and strong children have strong opinions, and that usually leads to conflicts that they have difficulty reconciling,” said Andrew Young, the former Congressman and Atlanta mayor who worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement and remains close to the family.
The lawsuit filed July 10 claims that Dexter King, administrator of his father’s estate, has failed to provide his surviving siblings with essential documents, including financial records and contracts.
It claims that he and the estate “converted substantial funds from the estate’s financial account… for their own use” on June 20 without notifying his sister and brother. It is not about money, but instead is a last-resort effort to talk to Dexter King about the family’s affairs, even if it’s through a judge, Young said.
“It’s simply a matter of asking for help,” he said. “That’s consistent with the civil rights movement. Everything we did, we went to judges to reconcile the differences. I don’t think there’s any animosity or hostility involved in it.”
Bernice and Martin Luther King III both declined to be interviewed for this story, but issued a statement Saturday through attorney Jock Smith.
“We love our brother, yet we cannot ignore our responsibility to ensure that the corporation we are all shareholders and directors of, is properly managed,” the statement said.
“Our right to obtain corporate documents that we have personally requested in the past few years, and more recently in the lawsuit that we have filed, have been continuously ignored,” it added. “Duty obligates us to preserve and protect the corporation and the legacy from arbitrary, singular, and seemingly self-serving decision-making.”
Dexter King did not respond to an interview request placed through The King Center.
In their joint statement, his siblings also expressed their disapproval of Dexter King’s public comments regarding the case.
“We invite our brother to refrain from using the media to air his grievances with the lawsuit,” the statement added. “Instead of avoiding being served, we hope that he will respond to the lawsuit, to the court, and to us with answers.”
A dispute involving that center in 2005 showed some chinks in the King children’s armor. Bernice and Martin Luther King III took sides against the others when they opposed the sale of the center.
They argued the deal would compromise the center’s independent voice. Their mother, Coretta Scott King, founded the center shortly after her husband’s death in 1968, and it needed more than $11 million in repairs.
Before the issue could be resolved, Coretta Scott King died in January 2006 of complications from a stroke and ovarian cancer at age 78. As her children worked to get her affairs in order, Martin Luther King III said the siblings were forced to talk more.
“In the past, there could be times when we didn’t talk, but now, that can’t be the case,” he said in a December 2006 interview with The Associated Press. “We have never been at odds, per se. We have disagreed on issues.”
In the year after their mother’s death, the eldest, Yolanda, held the family together. Then she died in May 2007 from a heart attack at age 52 in Malibu, Calif., where she and Dexter lived and were pursuing entertainment careers.
Dexter has since drifted further from his older siblings. He was conspicuously absent from the King holiday celebration in January and the 40th anniversary of his father’s assassination in April.
The split is difficult for all three grieving siblings, said the Rev. Joseph Lowery, another King lieutenant and family friend. He said they had their differences even when their mother was alive.
“They talk; they just don’t communicate,” Lowery said. Yolanda King often served as a bridge between the other three, he said. “That bridge is no longer there.”