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MLK's Bible, Nobel Peace Prize held in safe deposit box amid family dispute

From Victor Blackwell and Marlena Baldacci, CNN
updated 6:48 PM EST, Thu February 20, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Bernice King says she weighed lending MLK's Nobel Prize and Bible, but not selling
  • A judge has ordered her to turn over the items
  • The items will be stored in a safe deposit box that only the court can access
  • The judge made the ruling in a case that pits King's daughter against his two sons

Atlanta (CNN) -- Locked in a battle with her brothers over their family treasures, the daughter of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. said Thursday she'd once considered lending them but never selling them.

Bernice King says her brothers' plan to sell their father's Bible and the Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded 1964. Dexter and Martin Luther King III have sued to force their sister to turn over those items, and a judge has ordered the items stored in a safe deposit box that only the court can open until the case is resolved.

In a statement issued Thursday afternoon, Bernice King acknowledged that she had once considered selling other heirlooms, including the Spingarn Medal the NAACP awarded her father in 1957. But she said she had never believed it was acceptable to sell the Nobel Prize medal or King's traveling Bible, which was used by President Barack Obama when he was sworn in for his second term.

"At the time I agreed in 2007 to the potential transfer of certain memorabilia to the National Center for Human and Civil Rights, it was totally consistent with furthering the King legacy because of the nature of their mission," she said. "They are a civil rights center. But let it be noted that I have and always will object to the sale of the Nobel Peace Prize and Bible as I believe the sale of those items is sacrilegious and a breach of my obligation as a steward and trustee of my father's legacy."

King was assassinated in 1968, and his widow, Coretta Scott King, died in 2006.

In court papers, the King brothers submitted an e-mail inventory Bernice King wrote in 2007 that divided items from the estate of the civil rights leader into four categories: those she would be willing to sell, including the Spingarn Medal; items she would not be willing to sell, but might consider lending, such as the Nobel Peace Prize and Bible; items that had questions associated with them; and items she would have to examine before deciding.

But in Thursday's statement, Bernice King said that now, "I would not support the sale of most of the memorabilia listed in the 2007 e-mail."

The CEO of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, Doug Shipman, told CNN on Thursday that he had no comment on the legal proceedings and that his center had not bought any items from the King estate. But he said the center plans to display King papers sold several years ago by the estate and now owned by Morehouse College.

Bernice King, who was 5 when her father was assassinated, is acting as the "gatekeeper" to her father's property, said attorney William Hill, who represents the King estate. He said she has no individual claim to the property that belongs to the estate controlled by her brothers.

Wednesday, Fulton County Superior Judge Robert McBurney ordered the disputed items placed "in a safe deposit box in an unknown location." But he warned Bernice King it was likely that her brothers would be able to show "the Bible and peace prize are possessions of the estate."

According to the King brothers' complaint, King's heirs agreed in 1995 to give up their inheritance to the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr. Inc., but Bernice King has "secreted and sequestered" the items in question.

Bernice King has said her brothers told her on January 22 that they wanted the items so they could sell them. Her attorney, Eric Barnum, called the attempt to sell the items a "money grab," saying there's a history of the King sons taking money made from selling possessions to line their own pockets.

The judge compared Bernice King's stance against the sale of her father's possessions to Coca-Cola not wanting to sell its secret soft drink recipe. He later noted he was not trivializing the value of King's possessions with the comparison.

This is not the first time the family has been at odds over King's legacy. Over the years, the siblings have sued and countersued one another.

Bernice King and Martin Luther King III sued Dexter King in 2008, accusing him of converting "substantial funds from the estate's financial account at Bank of America" for his own use. They agreed to a settlement, thereby avoiding a trial.

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