What Becomes a Legend Most?

Selling King's Papers; Reclaiming Malcolm X's

Men by the name of James Calhoun are not easy to locate in the Orlando area. The best information the Voice was able to obtain is that the Shabazz family was told that he lives in Florida and operates a flea market, selling goods on the street, and that there may be both a father and son by that name. Calls to all the flea markets listed in the Orlando area, including one dealer who searched a local flea market database, yielded no one who had ever heard of James Calhoun.

When Calhoun attempted to sell the Malcolm X papers through Butterfields, according to Fleming and another source close to the case, the auction house did not notify the family. So it was only when Butterfields announced a sale that Brown's sisters became aware that the materials had been taken to Florida. Even though Butterfields decided to halt the sale, Public Storage, presumably recognizing there might liability for the firm, got an injunction to keep the papers off the auction block. Carl Phelps, general counsel for Public Storage, declined to comment. Now all the parties are trying to sort it out.

Dodson said, "The family has said that it is their desire to have the material deposited at the Schomburg Center and made available to scholars, reserving the right to go through and remove any materials they consider personal, or restrict certain uses, as is often the practice." No one has said that there is unanimity yet among the daughters, though, and Brown is reported to being holding out for another disposition. Fleming characterized her "interest in the material" as "limited."

Asked if the Butterfields appraisal seemed an appropriate one, he said, that his Shabazz-family clients "really have an aversion to establishing a monetary value for the materials." Still, he said, the Shabazz heirs would retain copyright control. "The family has periodically licensed the name, image, and works, and that will continue, or as Attalah Shabazz said, 'We will always be the proprietors of our own legacy.' "

Private Sale

The Martin Luther King papers being put up for sale at Sotheby's are most likely the same papers that were nearly sold in a 1999 deal with the Library of Congress nixed by conservatives in Congress. According to an expert at one interested university who asked not to be named, the block of papers includes 7000 pages of handwritten manuscripts, King's complete personal library, replete with books annotated by him, and even a seminary report card giving him a C in public speaking.

Those institutions contacted for this quiet Sotheby's sale include a number that have been invited at least once before to consider purchasing the papers, and some who had interest in the Shabazz trove as well. Among them are public and private university libraries with substantial holdings pertaining to African American history, King, or the civil rights movement, as well as major collections. The directors of two institutions contacted by Sotheby's about the King sale told the Voice that they were cautioned not to talk with the press, and several others contacted by the Voice were on spring break.

Don E. Carleton, director of the Center for American History at the University of Texas, Austin, told the Voice that he received a message within the last several weeks inviting him to a "special showing" of the King materials at Sotheby's. But he's seen them before, because he was contacted to examine them in the late '90s, before the Library of Congress deal, when they were appraised at between $28 million and $30 million.

But even then the asking price seemed too steep. "The value is subjective, but we felt it was priced beyond market," said Carleton. "It's not any reflection on Dr. King's value as a human being, of course, but we couldn't consider the amounts they were talking about and couldn't justify it." His institution, he said, had never before paid such a sum for papers. In 1997, both Emory and Stanford universities also evaluated and failed to acquire the same documents.

There have been several stumbling blocks over the years. One is that the Kings opted to leave out all the papers pertaining to the work of King's organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), with which he worked. This means, according to Louise Cook, former director of the King Center's Library Archives and Museum in Atlanta, that the papers for sale represent less than a tenth of the papers.

When the Library of Congress (LOC) tried to get the collection in 1999, detractors of the deal said that the family was asking for a fee, getting free housing and preservation for the papers, but not yielding ownership (and the consequent royalties)—only their physical presence. The LOC offered to pay $20 million, with $10 million of the value being given by the Kings as a donation (and possible tax deduction). But the potential sale really went south when Pulitzer Prize-winning King biographer and Emory law professor David Garrow was quoted across the country disparaging the papers' worth, the price, and the King family in general. House conservatives jumped on the bandwagon, and the deal failed. But the King family's financial needs were perhaps acute, because that same year, they allowed the National Park Service, with whom they had had earlier spats, to buy the King Center, the family home, his 1960 Chevy, and even the wagon that pulled his coffin, for an undisclosed sum.

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