Ronald J. Hansen and Paul Egan, Detroit News, Feb. 16, 2007
A high-stakes battle over control of the estate and legacy of civil rights icon Rosa Parks is about to be fought in a Detroit courtroom.
The case, featuring top-name lawyers and a list of possible witnesses that includes former President Bill Clinton, pits 13 of Parks’ nieces and nephews against Elaine Steele, Parks’ longtime friend and business associate.
Parks’ relatives argue Steele exerted undue influence when an aging Parks signed a 1998 will that left virtually everything she had—including future rights to her name and likeness—to a nonprofit institute Parks and Steele founded.
Former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer Jr. is expected to testify at the trial in Wayne County Probate Court that he had to negotiate with Steele to arrange for Parks’ nieces and nephews even to visit.
Johnnie Cochran’s law partner, Jock M. Smith, is among the high-priced legal talent representing the Rosa & Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, where Steele is a co-founder and director. Also on the team are Kenneth Hylton Sr., a law partner of former Michigan Gov. John Swainson and prominent Detroit criminal defense attorney Cornelius Pitts.
Burton has issued a gag order barring everyone connected to the case from discussing the matter before the trial, which is scheduled to last a week. Throughout the case, both sides and Burton have said they want to avoid a spectacle that dishonors Parks.
As lawyers traded documents in the estate case last year, the institute signed a marketing deal in April with CMG Worldwide, an Indianapolis-based firm that markets dead celebrities. The contract wasn’t disclosed until summer, and prompted Burton to order the $65,000 CMG already owed the institute placed in escrow. That amount has since grown to more than $140,000, lawyers said Thursday.
Most civil rights leaders reaped no financial benefits for the work they did and many of their descendants want to change that, Blake said. Families usually start by saying they want to protect a legacy but sometimes begin to treat the civil rights leader’s name and image as a cash cow, he said.
From the outset, Steele’s lawyers have suggested a simple defense: It is logical Parks would want to strengthen the institute she established. Besides, many saw Parks in the years before and after the July 1998 will, and thought she seemed in control of her affairs, Steele’s attorneys have suggested.