King secretary to auction items from U.S. civil rights leader

By Emily Le Coz

RIDGELAND, Mississippi (Reuters) - A civil rights activist who worked as Martin Luther King Jr.'s personal secretary is auctioning off a rare collection of items, including the final page of King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

Thirty-nine archives belonging to former King secretary Maude Ballou, some of which were the focus of a lawsuit brought by his heirs, are set for sale on October 17 at the New York gallery of Heritage Auctions.

Opening bids range from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars for artifacts that offer a glimpse of the civil rights movement from the front lines, the auction house said.

"Many of the things we're offering in this auction are very unique, and there really hasn't been anything like it ever on the market," said Sandra Palomino, Heritage's director of historical manuscripts.

Among the mementos Ballou preserved from those years are eight note cards handwritten by King for a December 1959 speech he gave to his Dexter Avenue Baptist Church congregation in Montgomery, Alabama, to announce his departure to focus on the civil rights movement.

The church, now a National Historic Landmark, had served as King's headquarters for organizing the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott sparked by Rosa Parks, a black woman charged with violating segregation laws when she refused to give up her bus seat to a white man.

The archives being auctioned, some of which contain dozens of artifacts each, show that support for the movement's leaders was not uniform across the African-American community. A black opposition flier chastised the civil rights leaders for riding "in big cars" while other boycotters walked.

"Often when we think about the civil rights movement, it seems like everyone was together," Palomino said. But "this was a group of regular folks taking their own lives into their hands."

Ballou, now 88, was among them.

Before working as King's personal secretary from 1955 to 1960, she said she faced threats after registering to vote in Mobile, Alabama, and later was evicted from a city bus after refusing to sit in the blacks-only section.

She avoided arrest but seethed as she walked home in high heels, she recalled during an interview at the assisted living facility where she lives in Ridgeland, Mississippi.

Ballou's collection includes several programs from the memorial services she attended in King's honor after his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968, as well as the last page of the "I Have a Dream" speech he gave in 1963 in Washington, D.C.

Some of the auction artifacts once were the subject of a legal fight with King's heirs. They sued Ballou's son, Howard, in 2011 in U.S. District Court in Jackson, Mississippi, claiming the documents belonged to the King family, but Howard Ballou said King had given the documents to his mother.

A judge dismissed the Kings' claim last year and, after the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans upheld the decision in April, the auction was allowed to go forward.

A portion of the auction proceeds will establish an education fund in Maude and Leonard Ballou's name at Alabama State University, where Leonard Ballou taught music.

Ballou's family said they will keep many items, including an autographed copy of King's book "Stride Toward Freedom."

The inscription on the inside cover reads, "To my secretary Maude Ballou ... In appreciation for your good will, your devotion to your work, and your willingness to sacrifice beyond the call of duty in assisting me to achieve the ideals of freedom and human dignity for our people."

It is signed, "Martin." (Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Andrew Hay)