Judge throws out lawsuit seeking MLK documents

March 29, 2012 in News

U.S. District Judge Tom Lee has dismissed a lawsuit filed against Howard Ballou (left) by King’s children and the King Estate. The estate claimed personal papers given to Ballou’s mother while she worked for Dr. King as his secretary (right) legally belonged to the King Estate. Judge Lee disagreed.

JACKSON – (AP) A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by the estate of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. seeking documents and other material connected to the civil rights leader from a Mississippi television anchor.

The lawsuit was filed in September 2011 in U.S. District Court in Jackson against Howard Ballou, an anchor for the Jackson-based WLBT-TV. The suit said Ballou’s mother, who worked for King as a secretary from 1955 to 1960, kept documents during the time King led the Montgomery Improvement Association and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

“I’m very pleased that the judge saw how incredibly frivolous and ridiculous this lawsuit was,” Ballou said Friday. “My mother and father and Dr. and Mrs. King were very, very close friends and I resent how the estate tried to, for lack of a better term, besmirch my mother’s character. She risked her life like so many others so we could have the rights we have today. It saddens me that one of America’s greatest heroes, my personnel hero, Dr. Martin Luther King, is being tarnished by this type of behavior.”

In dismissing the lawsuit Friday, March 23, U.S. District Judge Tom Lee said there was nothing to contradict Maude Ballou’s testimony that King gave her the material. Lee dismissed the lawsuit with prejudice, meaning it can’t be re-filed.

The King estate, which claimed the documents rightfully belonged to them, can appeal the ruling.

“Mrs. Ballou could not recall whether she was also given originals of some documents, but she made clear in her testimony that the documents she personally kept were those that Dr. King gave to her personally, to keep,” the judge wrote. “Plaintiff has offered no proof to contradict or undermine Mrs. Ballou’s testimony.”

Jackson attorney Bob Owens said he was disappointed with the ruling and is “certain that the estate is going to appeal” to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

The documents described in court records include a sermon; a statement King made the day after a landmark Supreme Court ruling on segregation; and a handwritten letter to Ballou’s mother from civil rights icon Rosa Parks.

Asked the value of the documents, the estate’s attorney said they haven’t been catalogued, but are “invaluable to the estate.”

Ballou argued in court papers that his parents were personal friends of King, and his father and King were fraternity brothers. He insisted the letters, photographs and other items were gifts and rightfully belong to his family.

The judge threw out the lawsuit after Ballou moved for a summary judgment, a legal ruling based on statements and evidence submitted to the court without a trial. In this case, Ballou’s lawyer had argued that the facts are simple and that the material belongs to his family.

The judge agreed.

Ballou’s attorney, Robert Gibbs of Jackson, said, “Until there is an appeal, Howard can do what he wants with the documents because the court clearly said they belong to him.”

King’s estate, a Georgia corporation operated as a private company by his children, had argued in court records that the motion for summary judgment was premature. The estate wanted the motion to be denied or continued until the parties conduct discovery, in which the King material could be studied and catalogued. The items were being kept in a bank’s safe deposit box, court records said.

The estate is known to fight for control of the King brand and has sued media companies that used his “I Have a Dream” speech.

After working for King, Ballou’s parents went to work at what is now Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina, where Leonard Ballou was as an archivist. Leonard Ballou apparently stored the material in the university’s basement, unbeknownst to anyone, until it was discovered by the university in 2007 and returned to the Ballou family.

The suit says the university contacted Howard Ballou about taking possession of the material because his father was deceased. His mother, however, is alive.

The estate’s attorneys said in court records that it first learned of the documents in 2010 when a newspaper wrote about them.