An elderly Maryland woman who grew up in the same neighborhood as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wants to sell 25 of the civil rights leader's writings through an Atlanta auction house, an action that King's heirs say they will fight.
The woman does not want to be identified, said Paul Brown, owner of Gallery 63, a consignment arm of the auction house Red Baron.
Reached on a cruise ship yesterday in the Caribbean, Brown said the auction is set for April 15. The news was first reported in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday.
Brown said the woman told him that she received the papers in the 1960s in return for a debt she was owed by WERD, the first black-owned radio station, which shared a building with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights group founded by King.
The woman told him that she and King grew up in the same neighborhood and that she was five or six years older than he was, Brown said. Her husband worked in some capacity for the radio station, Brown said.
"She called [King] just another boy in the neighborhood," he said. "They were friends. She attended a couple of jazz concerts with him back in the day, and they had some sort of interaction ... at the radio station."
The green folder holding the documents, which sat in the woman's basement for decades, contained letters, invitations and position papers, some with handwritten notes.
The papers have not been authenticated or appraised, but Brown estimated that the sale could bring in $100,000 to $300,000.
"Quite frankly, there are no other comparables," he said, adding that he has been contacted by numerous interested parties, including two educational institutions.
Issac Newton Farris, King's nephew and chief executive of the King Center in Atlanta, said he has a team working to identify and contact the woman to determine whether she has documentation, signed by the late King, giving the papers to WERD.
"There will be no auction," Farris said. "Unless there is some documentation signed by my uncle, these papers are ours, and we expect them back. If we have to go to court, we're prepared to do that."
Brown said he has not been in contact with anyone from the King Center but would be pleased if the center bought the papers at the auction.
"I would love them to be the buyer and unify the whole collection," he said. "That would be great. That would be the best of all possible worlds."
The documents will be sold to one buyer, Brown said. "She wants it to stay together. It's about an inch-thick file folder," he said.
The battle over the documents follows the aborted Sotheby's auction last year of thousands of King's papers from the basement of his wife, Coretta Scott King.
Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin staved off the auction, working out a $32 million deal in which the King family sold some of the documents to a coalition of donors that then gave the papers to Morehouse College.
According to the auction house's Web site, the previously undiscovered papers are from the early to mid-1960s.
Also included is an invitation from an Italian television station. In the margin of the document, King apparently wrote: "For Andy [Andrew Young]. Tell them I would be happy to appear ... in October or November."
Other documents include a letter from the Berlin Jazz Festival asking King to attend its "The Negro in the Modern World" festival. King scrawled "write forward" at the top of the page.
Typed items include a piece titled "The Grand Alliance versus the 'White Backlash,'" an address to the SCLC; a paper titled "The Spirit and the Letter - An Analysis of the Ethical Demands of Integration in the South"; and an article for a London newsletter.
Clayborne Carson, a history professor and director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project at Stanford University, said it remains unclear how valuable the documents are.
"There's always things on eBay that's going up in auction," said Carson. "It really depends on whether there are handwritten notes by Martin Luther King, as opposed to something with a signature."
Carson said it appeared that the handwriting on the invitation from the Italian television station - which is featured on the auction house's Web site - was King's. "That helps the value quite a bit," he said.
Taylor Branch, a Baltimore-based scholar and award-winning author who has written extensively about King, agreed, saying, "I think they all ought to be in the Library of Congress, out from anybody's control except a library. I didn't think the King Center auction was appropriate."
Branch noted that most of King's papers were not sold in last year's deal and remain at the King Center, unavailable to scholars and students.
"They're not being taken care of ... and are not even available to students and scholars," said Branch, who pored over the documents for his trilogy of books on King and the history of the civil rights movement. "They're neglected and left behind, and they shouldn't be," Branch said.