Right about the time Bernice King and her two brothers were sharing the spotlight on the steps of the Linccoln Memorial, joining three presidents and tens of thousands of others honoring her father on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, lawyers for her brothers were filing suit against her.
“I was surprised. I did not know that it occurred on the 28th,” said Bernice King, who did not learn of the suit for days. “It was disappointing to me that it happened on that particular day. It is still a question mark to me.”
On that Wednesday, while the three of them symbolically rang a bell to “Let Freedom Ring,” lawyers for the brothers were filing suit in Fulton County Superior Court calling for Bernice King’s removal as CEO of the King Center. It was the last time she saw or talked to either one of them.
“I don’t think people doubt we love each other,” Bernice King said. “People are looking at the children of the proponent of non-violence and saying this shouldn’t be happening. … Families struggle. We are not immune to it. We love each other, but there is no secret that we have different issues.”
Bernice King said she was blindsided by the suit, although on Aug. 10, the King estate — represented by the brothers, Martin III and Dexter — sent the King Center a letter threatening to revoke the current licensing agreement. That was also the time when she was in the final stages of planning the anniversary celebration, which meant trying to get speaking commitments from five U.S. Presidents, three of whom showed up.
“I told her, don’t let any of this distract you,” said Andrew Young. “The important thing about that was not the administration, but the message.”
It is the second time in the last five years that the siblings — albeit representing different factions — have taken legal action against each other. In 2008, Bernice and Martin IIII took Dexterto court over suspicions that he was running the King Estate in a way that unfairly benefited him and allowed them little control over their father’s legacy.
The judge appointed a temporary custodian to run the King Estate, allowing the siblings to avoid a long and embarrassing jury trial.
At issue this time is the condition of the King Center and the center’s licensing use of Martin Luther King Jr.’s image. The suit not only claims that the King Center has been misusing King’s image, but that the center is also at risk of damage by fire, water, theft, mold and mildew.
The brothers, representing the King Estate, are also calling for the ouster of two of Bernice King’s allies on the board of trustees, Young and their cousin, Alveda King. In the suit, the brothers said they would reconsider if Bernice King temporarily steps down and Alveda and Young resign from the board.
“If the desire is for me to put on leave and them being removed, that is not an alternative,” said Bernice King, who became the center’s CEO in 2012, after Martin III was removed.
Bernice King, Alveda King and Young sat down with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Wednesday. Calls to Martin III and Dexter King were not returned.
Bernice King said she has 30 days to respond to her brothers’ suit, although she is hoping to reach an out of court settlement.
A week after the suit was filed, the three named in the current suit say they are all still at a loss about what prompted it.
“My involvement has always been to try to reconcile the differences,” Young said. “That is never easy. I think Dr. King, Coretta, Daddy King and Mommy King are four of the strongest-willed individuals I have ever met. So it is natural that there children would be strong willed.”
But Young, who has been a close friend of the King family for more than 50 years, is also legally involved. The King Estate is alleging that Young is using King’s images and likeness in his films as a documentary producer.
“It is like with my own children. I am always ready to be removed from their lives,” Young said. “I don’t take it personally at all.”
Bernice King became the King Center’s CEO in 2012, following King III, who was president and CEO. Bernice initially became the CEO with King III keeping the title of president, with Dexter serving as chairman of the board – creating a three-person power structure.
But King III, who felt forced out as CEO, eventually quit.
“I hate that he left (as president),” Bernice King said. “My hope and prayer is that my brother can find healing, I apologized. That is all I can do.”
Bernice King said that as president, she has been trying to address some of the issues that surfaced in suit.
“I was duly-elected and I have been focused on continuing the work that others began,” Bernice King said. “As you can imagine, it is difficult to raise money. I have tried to tackle each one by one, with honor and humility. This is not a cakewalk.”