What Becomes a Legend Most?

Selling King's Papers; Reclaiming Malcolm X's

People outside of her family may never know why Malikah Brown, one of the six daughters of Malcolm X, loaded up a sizable collection of his manuscripts, diaries, photographs, and negatives, and secretly hauled them off to a storage locker in Florida and then never reclaimed them. But when a still elusive man named James Calhoun bought the storage contents and then offered them to an auction house for sale, a door was opened into what remains of the papers of Malcolm X, later known as Malcolm Shabazz. It took legal action to stop that sale, and scholars and community activists alike hope that the outcome of this strange saga will be that steps are taken to preserve the intellectual legacy of this influential maverick.

Butterfields, a San Francisco auction house owned by eBay, appraised the materials at between $300,000 and $500,000, and scheduled them for its March 20 sale, but pulled the documents when questions arose about their history and ownership. At this point, an agreement will have to be made between the heirs (including Brown), the storage company, and Calhoun. Butterfields spokesman Levi Morgan said they are not part of any future auction and Calhoun is also waiting for "the process to come to some resolution." If the papers are returned, most of the Shabazz daughters want to place them with the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.

The 39-year-old husband and father who wrote these diaries and papers knew toward the end that he was doomed, but with that exception, his story is like the myth of Osiris, who was murdered in a power struggle and whose remains were scattered throughout Egypt by the Nile waters. Wherever his remains landed, a temple grew up in his honor. His wife, Isis, brought his spirit back to life by reclaiming fragments from these sites. Malcolm built many temples in life, but after his 1965 assassination, his widow, Betty, and daughters (Attalah, Qubilah, Ilyasah, Gamilah, Malaak, and Malikah) were left in great jeopardy and his possessions were scattered. As a consequence, for 37 years, his published legacy has been The Autobiography of Malcolm X, recorded speeches, and books by a number of people (including me) who've never studied his papers. Now we will see what arises from the Florida locker cache.

As these events unfolded, the Sotheby's auction house, at the behest of the family of Martin Luther King Jr., the celebrated leader of the Southern civil rights movement, has been quietly preparing a private sale of about 80,000 pages of King's papers, valued at $30 million. At press time neither Sotheby's nor Intellectual Property Management, which handles the King estate, had returned Voice phone calls.

King's 1968 assassination also put his family in great jeopardy, and his widow, Coretta, and four children (Yolanda, M. L. King III, Bernice, and Dexter) have experienced decades of haphazard income. The personal harm done to these people is incalculable, but the King family's management of the estate has some of the elements of a 19th-century English novel. The father's death without any wealth has defined the family's economic situation for the past 35 years. Their attempts to gain serious remuneration for use of King's speeches, manuscripts, and image, particularly in the past few years, have led to rancorous encounters that have damaged the family's reputation. At this point, so little of King's work can be used that no less than his place with younger generations is at stake.

By Any Means Possible

Of the materials listed in the sketchy Butterfields catalog for "the Malcolm X Collection," Shabazz scholars are especially excited by the handwritten manuscripts, his annotated personal Koran, and diaries from the last weeks of his life, which included travel to Mecca, Africa, and Europe. Writers of all stripes have developed theories of his eventual political direction. These manuscripts should at least narrow the debate.

"The two sets of diaries are likely to be among the more important," said Howard Dodson, chief of the Schomburg Center, "because his autobiography was completed before he returned from abroad, and though some of his thoughts during those trips are in Alex Haley's afterword, Haley probably pulled that from his own correspondence from Malcolm."

Dodson also said the written record will probably revise thinking about his speeches. "There were many assumptions that he riffed, improvised, and things weren't written down, but he structured them, and so it will be interesting to see how he worked with the manuscripts when speaking."

"History has a way of showing the value of the work people have done," said Joseph Fleming, lawyer for most of the Shabazz heirs. Asked about the papers' journey from Malcolm's hands to Butterfields, he said, "The material, given its age, has traveled from place to place. The papers were possibly in the Hotel Theresa in Harlem for a time, but they were in the possession of Dr. Betty Shabazz at the time of her death, and stored in property owned by the family." But how did the material get to a San Francisco auction house?

Those who've tracked Malcolm X documents for years include the family, the Schomburg, and universities like Columbia and Emory that have Shabazz collections. But smaller grassroots organizations, usually headed up by people who knew Shabazz, like the Malcolm X Museum and Brothermalcolm.net, have been looking, too.

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