Legal battle over Martin Luther King Jr. Bible, Nobel prize headed for court-ordered mediation



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ATLANTA — A legal battle over the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s traveling Bible and 1964 Nobel Peace Prize is headed for court-ordered mediation, and lawyers for both sides said Wednesday they hope for a lasting resolution to issues that have long divided the civil rights icon's heirs.

The three surviving King children — Martin Luther King III, Dexter Scott King and the Rev. Bernice King — are the sole shareholders and directors of the Martin Luther King Jr. Estate Inc. In January 2014, Martin and Dexter voted 2-1 against Bernice to sell their father's peace prize medal and traveling Bible to an unnamed private buyer.

Both items had long been in Bernice's possession. Lawyers for the estate filed a lawsuit just over a week after the vote asking a judge to order Bernice to surrender them.

Speaking from the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where her father and grandfather preached, Bernice in February 2014 denounced her brothers' intentions, saying the Bible and peace prize medal were among their father's most cherished possessions and shouldn't be sold.

The estate's lawyers had cited a 1995 agreement among King's heirs to sign over their rights to many items they inherited from their father to the estate.

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. His widow, Coretta Scott King, died in 2006. Yolanda King, the Kings' eldest child, died in 2007.

The case was set to go to trial in February, but Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney temporarily halted all action in the case at the parties' request to allow them time to settle. He ordered them to appear before him in late March if they hadn't reached an agreement by then, and he later extended that deadline to Wednesday.

Eric Barnum, a lawyer for Bernice, on Wednesday told McBurney the two sides have been involved in "intense settlement discussions" on issues involving King's legacy, estate and related for-profit and nonprofit entities.

Barnum said they have made substantial progress and have even exchanged draft settlement agreements. But he asked for court-ordered mediation to get them to a final resolution in this case and also on broader issues.

Nicole Jennings Wade, a lawyer for the King estate, said her client does not oppose mediation.

McBurney said he plans to issue an order early next week outlining the mediation terms, including who must be present at any talks. He wants the parties to agree on a mediator or to submit names from which he can choose by June 30 and for mediation to be complete by Sept. 30, he said.

Barnum and Wade told reporters after the hearing there is no one sticking point in the negotiations, but multiple issues must be addressed.

"My understanding is everyone wants to settle things once and for all," Barnum said.

Legal disputes have divided the slain civil rights icon's children over the last decade.

The King estate on Jan. 22 voluntarily dismissed a lawsuit it had filed in August 2013 against the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. Dexter is president and CEO of the estate and Martin is chairman of the board. Bernice is CEO of the King Center.

That suit centered on a licensing agreement between the estate and the King Center for the use of King's name, likeness, works and memorabilia. The estate claimed the King Center had violated that agreement and was storing King artifacts in unsafe and unsecure conditions.

When that lawsuit was dismissed, Dexter said in an emailed statement that it was a show of good faith as he and his siblings worked to resolve the issues dividing them. Bernice said at the time that she hoped they would be able to work together in the spirit of their parents' legacy to resolve their issues.

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