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Dr. King's Estate Suing Family Of His Former Secretary

T. Ortega Gains - 2009 Charlotte Observer File Photo

  Cardboard boxes lay scattered through Maude Ballou’s home off Statesville Avenue on Tuesday, packed with memories of her 87 years.

But as she prepared to leave Charlotte, it’s other possessions that have put her and her family at the center of a lawsuit by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s estate.

In 1955, Ballou was King’s secretary in Montgomery, Ala., and moved with his family to Atlanta in 1960. Along the way King – and even Rosa Parks – gave her papers documenting those early days.

“These are treasures from her years at the beginning of the civil rights movement that Dr. King gave her,” her son, Howard Ballou, said Tuesday.

But King’s heirs claim that the documents, which they just learned of in 2010, are the rightful property of his estate. After a federal district court rejected their claim last March, they took the case to a U.S. appeals court in New Orleans, where it awaits a ruling. The disputed documents are in a vault near Jackson, Miss.

The suit is among the latest in a series of legal actions taken in the name of King’s estate.

In 1987, Coretta Scott King sued Boston University for personal papers from her husband’s graduate school days. In 2008, Martin and Bernice King sued their brother, Dexter, accusing him of mismanaging the family corporation that controls King’s image and intellectual property. There have been other lawsuits and threats of suits.

But one King biographer said the fight with Ballou’s family is different.

“To sue somebody like Ms. Ballou, who worked for Dr. King and was totally loyal to Dr. King … betrays a sort of scorched-earth attitude,” said historian David Garrow, who called the suit “heartless.”

Neither the King family nor their attorneys could be reached.

Pushing transit desegregation

Maude Ballou, a retired Charlotte teacher, moved on Tuesday, King’s birthday, to Mississippi, near her son, a Jackson TV broadcaster.

In 1955, she worked at a Montgomery radio station and belonged to a group of black professionals pushing for equal rights. One thing on their agenda: the desegregation of city transit. That December, seamstress Rosa Parks was arrested after refusing to move to the back of a bus.

Her arrest sparked a mass meeting and the creation of the Montgomery Improvement Association. The 26-year-old King was elected to lead it. He knew Ballou through her husband and went by their house to ask her to work with the group.

Over the weeks that followed, she handled King’s growing schedule of appearances. She organized carpools and one night awoke to the bombing of King’s home. Ballou managed King’s schedule and travel, even after the boycott ended.

She and her husband, Leonard, grew close to King’s family, and would get together for birthdays.

Eventually Leonard Ballou took a job in North Carolina as an archivist at Elizabeth City State University, in the northeastern part of the state. He stored his wife’s papers – including copies of King’s speeches, a letter from Rosa Parks, and letters from King to Maude Ballou – in the basement of the college library.

District judge backs Ballou

In 2007, after Leonard Ballou had died and long after his wife had moved to Charlotte, another university archivist found the papers and contacted Howard Ballou. The King estate learned of the documents in 2010 when the local Elizabeth City paper ran an article about them.

“There is no dispute that these documents are the property of Dr. King,” the estate’s lawyers argued in a brief in federal court in Jackson. “These documents and items are not only rare and irreplaceable but of great value and historical importance.”

In their suit, the estate claims the documents are worth more than $75,000.

Maude Ballou testified that King had given her the documents.

“He said, ‘Maude, this is for you, and you remember to keep them because you have worked so hard with me,’ ” she said in a deposition.

The district judge essentially agreed. The estate, he wrote last March, “has offered no proof to contradict or undermine Mrs. Ballou’s testimony.”

Critics say the lawsuit conflicts with the values of King. “What makes this worse is what an un-material person Dr. King was,” Garrow said. “This was someone who throughout his life never took any financial benefit from the movement.”

Said Howard Ballou: “It saddens me because it’s tarnishing … the legacy of just a great human being who did so much. This is not what Dr. King was all about.” Staff Research Maria David contributed.

The Charlotte Observer