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Why Martin Luther King Jr.’s Nobel Peace Prize is sitting in a safe deposit box

(Toby Massey/AP)
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The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. He also had a traveling Bible, the one that President Obama used when he was sworn in for a second term. Neither of these items is currently in the possession of any of King’s children. Neither of them is on display at the King Center, a memorial and nonprofit in Atlanta, or at any other museum. Instead, they are where they have been for nearly a year: Sitting in a safe deposit box in a bank, hidden from the public, as King’s children continue their latest legal fight.

The argument is spilling into a courtroom this week, which could shed some light on who decides what happens to the two items. It comes as the holiday bearing King’s name looms, and also as King’s legacy and works are the subject of “Selma,” an Oscar contender that has been the subject of arguments regarding its depiction of King’s relationship with Lyndon B. Johnson.

A hearing Tuesday could decide who should be in possession of the prize and the Bible. Last year, Dexter King and Martin Luther King III, two of his sons, voted that the estate should sell these two items. Bernice, their sister, disagreed.

In a statement issued last February, after her brothers filed a court complaint, Bernice said she was “absolutely opposed to the selling of these extremely sacred items.” She went on to say:

While I love my brothers dearly, this latest decision by them is extremely troubling. Not only am I appalled and utterly ashamed, I am frankly disappointed that they would even entertain the thought of selling these precious items. It reveals a desperation beyond comprehension.

These items are worth quite a bit of money. Appraisers told the Associated Press that the Nobel Prize could go for anywhere from $5 million to $20 million. This would not be the first time some of King’s artifacts have been sold, either. Morehouse College in Atlanta hosts a collection of 10,000 notes, unpublished sermons and other items. The price for this collection was $32 million, according to Morehouse.

A judge in Atlanta is hearing a legal battle between the children of the late Martin Luther King Jr. over ownership of his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize medal and his Bible. (Video: Reuters)

Robert C. I. McBurney, the Fulton County superior judge who is hearing the arguments Tuesday, ordered Bernice King to hand over the prize and Bible last year while the court figures out what to do with them. She gave up the itemsin March, and they have been under the court’s control since.

The hearing Tuesday offers a familiar tableau: Members of King’s family engaged in an argument, either with each other or with someone else, over something involving King’s possessions. There was the announcement in 2005 that the King Center (controlled by Dexter King) would consider a sale to the National Park Service, which was followed by a news conference with Martin Luther King III saying he and Bernice King were unified in fighting “with those who would sell our father’s legacy.” There was the 2008 lawsuit involving how the estate’s money was being used and the counter-suit in response. There was also the suit that same year involving the three siblings differing over providing their mother’s papers and photographs to a biographer.

These lawsuits aren’t limited just to members of the King family. King and, later, his estate, have tightly controlled use of the “I have a dream” speech and his likeness over the years, which resulted in lawsuits against CBS and USA Today for using it without the estate’s permission. (The King estate licensed his speeches for a movie that may be produced by Steven Spielberg, which is why the movie “Selma” does not include any of King’s historic remarks.)

Coretta Scott King sued Boston University over 83,000 of her husband’s papers, but a jury ruled against her and the papers remain at the school, where King got his doctorate. In 2013, Harry Belafonte filed a lawsuit against three King children over who owned some of King’s papers (including an envelope King had in his pocket on the day he was assassinated in 1968).

Meanwhile, this latest spat may not even be resolved after the hearing Tuesday. If this hearing ends without the items being given to either side, the dispute could go to a jury trial, which would begin Feb. 16, according to the court.

[UPDATE, JAN. 30: McBurney issued a 30-day stay so that Bernice King can negotiate a deal with her brothers.]