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MLK family feud continues without judge's ruling

Less than a week before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a ruling ended in no decision Tuesday as to who rightfully owns the activist's personal Bible and medal.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is shown discussing a forthcoming speech, March 18, 1964, from his home in Atlanta, Ga. (Photo by AP)
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is shown discussing a forthcoming speech, March 18, 1964, from his home in Atlanta, Ga.

The longstanding family drama surrounding the legacy of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is sharing the spotlight with the rapturous reviews for the new film, "Selma," which depicts the life of the late civil rights icon.

Less than a week before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a ruling ended in no decision Tuesday as to who rightfully owns King's personal "traveling" Bible and 1964 Nobel Peace Prize medal, a local NBC News affiliate reported. Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney neglected to issue a decision in the battle between King's surviving sons and daughter about whether or not to sell the two prized-possessions.

The prolonged battle began last year when King's sons, Martin Luther King III and Dexter Scott King — who control the MLK estate — sued their sister, Rev. Bernice King, to reclaim the Bible and medal. Bernice refused, and the items since have been held in a court-ordered safety deposit box. 

The brothers hope to retrieve the belongings from their sister for a potential sale to a private buyer to raise money for the estate.

"The reality is that the items belong to the corporation. All of us, as original heirs of Martin Luther King Jr., assigned all of our rights and our inheritance to this corporation. And one individual decided to sequester those items," Dexter told local reporters after his court appearance on Tuesday.

Unless a judge makes a decision in the coming weeks, a trial between the siblings could begin as soon as Feb. 16. Neither attorneys for both sides of the debate immediately responded to msnbc's request for comment.

The ownership dispute is at least the fifth lawsuit between the siblings since their mother, Coretta Scott King, died in 2006. The King couple's eldest daughter, Yolanda, died in 2007.

In an emotional speech last February, Bernice blasted her brothers over the lawsuit they filed against her that asked a judge to force her to relinquish two of their father's most-prized possessions. The complaint states that Bernice "secreted and sequestered" her brothers in violation of a 1995 agreement that gave the estate ownership of their father's entire property.

"I will always love my brothers, but we are of different minds and most importantly, different relationships with God," she said in a press conference last February. “These items should never be sold to any person, as I say it, or any institution, because they’re sacred. I take this strong position for my father because Daddy is not here to say himself, 'My Bible and medals are never to be sold.'" King's Bible was one of two used to swear-in President Barack Obama during his second inauguration in 2013.

Two separate appraisers told The Associated Press they expect the medal could sell for about $5 million to $10 million, based on other purchases of Nobel medals and King's place in history.

The family's legal feuds and squabbles, which have been ongoing for years, have occasionally overshadowed the public conversation about the civil rights icon. King's children have been in and out of court for years for various disputes about their father's estate. On Aug. 28, 2013, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and of King's "I Have a Dream" speech, the brothers filed suit against their sister and the King Center, a nonprofit. They alleged the center, where Bernice is CEO, had been negligent in its handling of King memorabilia. The case is pending.

In 2008, Bernice and Martin III sued Dexter, who serves as CEO of the estate. They accused him of acting improperly as head of the estate. The three reached a private settlement in October 2009. 

RELATED: 'Selma' takes fresh look at MLK's legacy

The family battle continues as "Selma" plays in theaters around the country, and, for the most part, receives rave reviews. The new film, which was No. 2 at the box office last weekend, is the first major Hollywood motion picture to tackle King's legacy. It depicts King leading an activist movement in the hostile racial climate of Selma, Alabama, which helped prompt the eventual passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The film was released in theaters nationwide earlier this month after opening in select theaters on Christmas Day in 2014.

But controversy also surrounds the film, as details have emerged about the King estate's stance on copyrights, and how it affected the historical accuracy of the biographical movie. The producers, for example, had to paraphrase King's speeches because the family licensed the rights to another project. There is also further controversy surrounding the film regarding its portrayal of former President Lyndon Johnson's stance on voting rights.

The estate has rejected previous attempts to bring MLK's story to the big screen. Last January, director Oliver Stone cancelled his involvement in the previously announced King biopic that was set to star Oscar winner Jamie Foxx as the civil rights leader. Stone cited the producers' unwillingness to move forward with the script, which he said dealt with "issues of adultery, conflicts within the movement, and King's spiritual transformation into a higher, more radical being." The estate reportedly applied pressure to other directors in 2011, which caused Universal Pictures to drop the King project, "Memphis," because a draft of the script reportedly depicted marital infidelity before King's assassination almost 50 years ago on April 4, 1968.

But the Kings aren't the only family with a civil rights legacy to have public squabbles. The daughters of human rights activist Malcolm X previously sued to block a book deal, signed by one sister, to publish their father's diary that documented his pilgrimage to Mecca and his travels across the Middle East and Africa. And a collection of valuable mementos belonging to civil rights activist Rosa Parks has sat unsold in a New York City warehouse for years because of a prolonged battle over her estate.