King’s estate sued unsuccessfully to stop the sale of the papers and memorabilia. The case raises questions about who owns King’s history.
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — A private collection of Martin Luther King Jr. papers from the early days of the civil rights movement will be auctioned in New York on Thursday after his estate unsuccessfully sued the family of King’s former secretary for ownership of the items.
The family of Maude Ballou, King’s secretary in Montgomery from 1955 to 1960, was close to the King family, according to her son and King biographer David Garrow.
“Dr. King came by the house on multiple occasions asking if Mama, who had a business degree and was active with the women’s (civil rights) group, would help him,” says Ballou’s son, Howard Ballou, a Jackson, Miss., television news anchor. “They were huge friends all along, Dad being an Alpha (Phi Alpha Fraternity member) and Dr. King being an Alpha. Dad also tried to help Mrs. King with her music career,” Ballou says.
King’s estate is known for fighting vigorously to protect the King brand. Among other media companies targeted, the estate sued USA TODAY in 1993 for reprinting without a license the text of King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. USA TODAY settled the lawsuit.
The lawsuit against an individual who was so close to King seems to raise an interesting question: King is one of the nation’s most admired figures, but who owns his history?
“I would say that as a general matter, the public should own the history of Dr. King,” says Jennifer Jenkins, director of the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke University.
The battle over the documents Ballou is auctioning is not the only one regarding items connected to King. On Tuesday, entertainer Harry Belafonte sued the King estate in New York over three documents he’d been preparing to auction in 2008 when the King estate blocked the sale; he seeks unspecified damages and a declaration that he is the rightful owner of the documents.
Maude Ballou, and grandsons, from left, Blair, Brian and Brandon Ballou.(Photo: Family photo)
In the Ballou case, there does not appear to be a copyright or public domain issue because the legal questions turn on the ownership of physical property rather than intellectual property (the content in those letters), Jenkins says.
“For example, the King estate’s copyright in the “I Have a Dream” speech gives them a certain amount of control over who can reproduce or broadcast the words of that speech, but those rights are distinct from rights over the physical materials containing Dr. King’s words,” she says.
“A lawful owner of a page from the speech can dispose of that physical material as they wish. If I purchase the page from Ms. Ballou, I can sell or give it away because I own the physical page, but I can’t make a thousand copies of the words and sell those copies because that might infringe the King estate’s copyright.”
She says the legal question in the Ballou case was whether King gave Ballou the items in the collection, thus making her the legal owner.
“Regardless of who owns (the) physical page or whether the King estate owns the words of the speech, thankfully, the ideas in that speech are there to inspire us all,” Jenkins says.
Among more than 100 items in the collection, to be auctioned by Dallas-based Heritage Auctions, is a typed final page of the “I Have a Dream” speech, a letter he sent Ballou while touring India in 1959, and his handwritten notes for a speech telling his congregation at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery that he was leaving.
In considering the question of history, it’s important to make a distinction between items that have only memorabilia value and those that have historical value, says Garrow, professor of law and history at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and author of the 1986 Pulitzer Prize-winning King biography,Bearing The Cross.
“If you say here are seven file cards in Dr. King’s handwriting that are his outline for when he’s going to tell his congregation at Dexter that he’s moving to Atlanta, that has historical value,” Garrow says. “If it’s a pamphlet for the March on Washington, that’s more like a baseball card. That has memorabilia value.”
Historians at Alabama State University here, the nation’s oldest state-sponsored historically black school and a pivotal player in the birth of the civil rights movement, had hoped to get the Ballou collection.
They contacted the Ballou family in 2011, figuring they might have an inside track: Maude Ballou had been a frequent presence on the ASU campus, where her husband, Leonard Ballou, had been a music professor.
Martin Luther King Jr. makes his last public appearance April 3, 1968, at the Mason Temple in Memphis. The following day King was assassinated on his motel balcony.(Photo: Charles Kelly, AP)
“They told us that they unfortunately were going through a legal action against them from the King family,” says Janice Franklin, director of ASU’s Center for the Study of Civil Rights and African American Culture. “They said they respected our role in preserving the history of the modern civil rights movement, and they asked us to stay in touch.”
Howard Ballou, 59, says he was “stunned” by the King estate’s lawsuit. He says his mother, 88, and his late father became friends with Martin and Coretta King soon after the Kings moved to Montgomery.
He says the long legal battle has left his mother exhausted. “It’s been a drain on our family,” he says. “An 88-year-old woman shouldn’t have to go through this.”
Howard Ballou says his family spent “tens of thousands of dollars” defending the lawsuit. “We are not wealthy people,” he says.
Bob Owens, the Jackson, Miss., attorney who represented the King estate in the lawsuit, declined to comment
A portion of the Ballou auction proceeds will go to Alabama State, according to Ballou, university officials and Heritage Auctions.
The school already has interactive exhibits on such critically important but lesser-known movement figures as 1940s Montgomery NAACP president E.D. Nixon. They’re still hoping they’ll wind up with some items from the Ballou collection as they try to make the events that unfolded here over 50 years ago relevant to a new generation, says Howard Robinson, ASU’s archivist and a history professor specializing in the civil rights movement.
“We have a vested interest in the interpretation of our collective story,” he says. “We have a duty to make these historic events clear for today’s students and the public.”