The letter has been grieved over and fought over. It was written on April 5, 1968 — the day after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down on the balcony of a Memphis motel — and sent by President Lyndon B. Johnson to Coretta Scott King to express his condolences and his determination to find her husband’s assassin. “We will overcome this calamity,” Johnson promised in the letter on White House stationery.
King’s widow kept the historical artifact until 2003, when she gave it to her husband’s confidant, singer Harry Belafonte.
But when Belafonte considered auctioning it through Sotheby’s in 2008, shortly after Coretta died, King’s three children objected. The heirs have long exercised a strong grip over their father’s legacy, reaching settlements with news organizations over their use of the “I Have a Dream Speech,” and suing to stop King’s former secretary and her son from selling documents he had given her.
The King estate maintained that the Johnson condolence letter was taken without permission, prompting Sotheby’s to cancel any auction. Irked, Belafonte sued the King estate. They reached a settlement last spring, allowing the singer to keep the document.
Now that letter — along with a trove of other King memorabilia — is poised to return to the auction block March 5, just as the nation marks the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches.
This time, the sale is slated for Quinn’s Auction Galleries in Northern Virginia. And this time, Belafonte isn’t the one seeking to sell the letter. The new consignor: Shirley and Stoney Cooks, Belafonte’s half sister and brother-in-law, former civil rights activists who worked with King and live in Maryland. Belafonte, 87, gifted the condolence letter to Shirley last year, a thank you for her support during his legal battle.
“I was very surprised and very moved by his gift,” said Shirley, an ex-chief of staff to three members of Congress and a former State Department deputy assistant secretary. “Harry knows that I am interested in history, and I just think that, during the whole seven years of litigation, he was very frustrated, and I tried to be as supportive as I could to him and comforting.”
Shirley, 70, and Stoney, 71, felt that the time to sell it is now because of all the attention being paid to the anniversary of Selma, the subject of an Oscar-nominated movie.
The film’s critics, including Joseph A. Califano Jr., a top aide to Lyndon Johnson, have contended that “Selma” portrays the president as “being at odds” with King.
“Once I saw the Califano [op-ed in The Washington Post] saying the movie did not show the true character of LBJ, I thought, this is the time,” Stoney said.
The auction will determine the letter’s true value, the couple said, though they added that they hope that a major institution wins the bidding so it will be available for public viewing. The minimum bid for the letter is $60,000, and Quinn’s expects it to fetch at least $120,000.
Monika Schiavo, the director of Quinn’s rare books division, where Stoney has been a client for years, said she was shocked when he walked into the auction house in Falls Church, Va., in January and presented the condolence letter, which was sheathed in plastic and filed in an accordion folder.
“We’re not Sotheby’s or Christie’s. We’re the little auction house that could, and I was amazed he was going to sell it through us,” Schiavo said.
Since the King descendants are well known for suing people for control over their father’s materials, not much of the civil rights leader’s treasures make it to auction.
“We’re in unchartered territory here,” Schiavo said. “We subscribe to auction databases, so we looked at what LBJ autographs were going for and what MLK material had gone for to establish the prices. Because of how tightly controlled the material is, very little comes, and it makes it difficult to find comparable prices.”
Bernice King, the civil rights leader’s youngest child, who served as the administrator of her mother’s estate and was named as a defendant in Belafonte’s lawsuit, was not available for an interview Tuesday, according to a spokesman at the King Center, where Bernice serves as the chief executive. Lisa Pearson and John D. Steel, attorneys for the King family in the lawsuit, declined to comment.
In an interview, Belafonte said he placed no conditions on what Shirley and Stoney could do with the letter. “The fact they’re auctioning it off is their call,” he said.
Asked whether he thought anyone in the King family might try to buy the letter back, Belafonte said: “I really don’t care what they think. It’s been a very painful experience. I’ve been anguished at how they behaved and what they did to me.”
Mark Updegrove, the director of Johnson’s presidential library, which has a copy of the condolence letter, said the institution does not bid in auctions for Johnson memorabilia. “If someone purchases this and gave to it us, that would be a serendipitous occasion for us, because we certainly recognize the value of that letter. . . . It’s an extraordinarily valuable piece of American history.”
The condolence letter, however, is just the crown jewel in a cache of King items being offered. The other big-ticket prize: a guest book filled with about 1,550 signatures at King’s wake at Sisters Chapel at Spelman College in Atlanta, one of two such services after the assassination. Minimum bid: $2,000.
Stoney, at the time a staff member on King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, attended the wake. He was assigned to watch over King’s body, and a newspaper photograph he keeps shows him dusting off the glass-covered casket during the service.
But it wasn’t Stoney who took the guest book home after the service; it was Thomas Offenburger, SCLC’s public relations director under King. After Offenburger died in 1986 at age 52, Stoney helped dispose of his friend’s belongings, keeping his golf clubs, the guest book and some rough drafts of King’s speeches, Stoney said.
The scuffed black leather-bound book is filled with signatures and locations from around the world — Kentucky, Pakistan, Jamaica and Nigeria. A few messages were even scrawled: “Shame to America — As long as White Americans are unwilling [to] understand itself, it can never understand the American Negro,” wrote a mourner named Ronald H. Owen, from London.
Other major items up for sale include an archive of drafts of speeches by King, including one with handwritten edits of a statement he gave in late 1967 announcing that he and several others were going to present themselves at the Birmingham, Ala., county jail to serve a prison sentence for five days. Minimum bid: $1,400.
Why didn’t the Cookses leave all this to their three grown sons? Stoney and Shirley laughed at this question.
Said Stoney: “My greatest worry was that we’d save this stuff for our children, and as soon as we’d die, they’d call someone in and say, ‘How much will you give us for everything?’ ”