Dispute between King family members surfaces in new lawsuit

09/04/2013 4:39 PM

09/04/2013 4:41 PM

On the day the world celebrated the 5oth anniversary of the March on Washington and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, a long-simmering conflict among his children escalated.

While dozens of dignitaries, including the president and two former presidents, were praising King last week, the King estate filed suit in Fulton County Superior Court calling for King Center CEO Bernice King to be placed on administrative leave, pending the final outcome of an audit of the center, and for the removal of former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young and Alveda King, a cousin, from the board.

Dexter King is the president of the King estate and Martin King III is the chairman of the board. All the parties are also members of the King Center’s board, with Dexter King serving as its chair. The sixth member of the board is Christine King Farris, Martin Luther King Jr.’s sister.

“It is disappointing that such a case, which is entirely without legal merit, has been filed the same week the nation is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s speech, which electrified our country and whose work serves as the center’s inspiration,” said Stephen Ryan, an attorney representing Bernice King. "Bernice King, Andrew Young and Alveda King are three King Center board members who will vigorously defend the King Center.”

On the anniversary of King’s speech, Ryan said, Bernice King, Alveda King and Young did not know that a suit would be filed that day. They didn’t learn about the lawsuit until Friday.

“I don’t understand what is going on,” said Young, the only nonfamily member of the board. "I still hope that we will be able to work it out.”

A spokeswoman for King III said he was not immediately available. Questions sent to an attorney for the estate were not returned.

During the anniversary celebration, there was an audible gasp at the event as the siblings gathered on the steps of the Lincoln Monument and embraced.

Photos of the embrace became an instant hit on social media.

“Beautiful!!!!!!,” one person posted on the Be A King Facebook page.

“The three of them look so good on the stage together,” said Young, a longtime confidant of the family, who was also in Washington for the celebration. "I thought Wednesday was a splendid statement that the movement was alive and well after 50 years.”

Alveda King saw the siblings and their families during the March on Washington commemoration in Washington and said the relationship “didn’t appear to be strained.”

“They have differing opinions, which is why there is a lawsuit, but they’re still family and they love each other, they really do.”

When asked about efforts to remove her from the board, Alveda King, the niece of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., said she was "not necessarily” disturbed by that. The plaintiff "can ask, that’s fine.”

She said when family members have such differences, "of course there’s an indication that it’s time for communication.”

She said she planned to "continue in love and continue in prayer and continue in the pattern that my dear uncle left here for us.”

According to the suit filed by the King estate – which describes the relationship between the estate and the King Center as" strained, resulting in a total breakdown in communication and transparency” – an audit of the King Center in April was "unacceptable.”

“The physical property is susceptible to damage by fire, water, mold and mildew, as well as to theft,” the suit claims, adding that the estate wants to terminate the current licensing agreement with the center because of the concerns.

The suit goes on to say that in order to prevent the termination of the agreement, the King Center would have to, among other things:

— Place Bernice King on leave pending the final outcome of an audit into the center’s past policies and practices.

— Remove Alveda King from the board of directors "because of her consistent violations of policies and procedures.”

— Remove Young from the board for "breaching his fiduciary duty by willfully infringing upon (the estate’s) intellectual property in commercial ventures.”

While the suit wasn’t specific about what Young had done, the former Atlanta mayor and key aide to King Jr. has recently started producing documentaries. Last month at Howard University he premiered his latest film,“1963: The Year That Changed America,” which focuses on the Birmingham civil rights campaign.

“The estate is in charge of the financial assets of the family and I have never requested, or charged or received a penny in 45 years,” Young said. "But I do feel an obligation to protect the records of the movement, which I am as much an heir to as they are.”

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