Posted on October 14, 2008

MLK Love Letters Caught in Legal Fight

Brian Feagans, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 14, 2008

Coretta Scott King kept the love letters beneath her bed, in a blue Samsonite suitcase.

The amorous writings of her husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., were among the most cherished possessions of a famously private person, said Lynn Cothren, Mrs. King’s special assistant for 23 years. “That’s why she kept them so close, in her room, underneath her bed.”

Coretta Scott King kept her love letters from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in a blue suitcase under her bed. {snip}

But Tuesday, those letters and other “intimate correspondence” between the Kings are expected to be in a far less private place: Fulton County Superior Court. The papers are caught in an increasingly bitter and public dispute among her three living children.

On one side is Dexter King, head of the corporation that handles the rights to his father’s works. In May, he negotiated a $1.4 million contract to publish a biography of his mother. It would be co-written by the Rev. Barbara Reynolds, a journalist-turned-minister who taped conversations with Mrs. King before she died in January 2006.

On the other side is Dexter King’s younger sister, Bernice King, who has refused to hand over the intimate correspondence between her parents for use in the biography. Bernice King says her mother didn’t want Reynolds to write the book and that the correspondence belongs to Mrs. King’s estate, which she controls.

The family corporation that Dexter King leads, called King Inc., is seeking a temporary restraining order that would force Bernice King to give the papers to Reynolds. A judge ordered her to bring the letters and photos to court Tuesday, though they are not expected to be shown in court. At stake is the book contract with Penguin Group, the New York-based publisher that has threatened to pull out should Bernice King fail to hand over the papers by Friday.


Even Reynolds, who would be paid $200,000 under the Penguin deal, is having second thoughts. She had hoped to finish the biography with the blessings of all the children, not watch it fuel more litigation between them.

“This fight is about control and money and materialism,” she said from her home in Maryland. “These are the things that Dr. King preached against. I don’t know what I’m going to do at this point.”


But Mrs. King wasn’t pleased with Reynolds’ drafts of the memoirs, and the collaboration ended. Another writer was brought in, but he didn’t work out, either. Reynolds’ tapes, meanwhile, gathered dust.

Then, after Mrs. King’s death in January 2006, Reynolds said Yolanda King, the eldest of the King children, called to say she and Dexter King liked her work. Yolanda King outlined what she believed to be her mother’s concerns, Reynolds said, but expressed support.


Yolanda King died in May 2007. Cothren [Lynn Cothren, Mrs. King’s special assistant for 23 years] said he has advised Reynolds not to go forward with the project. Mrs. King was concerned that Reynolds, now a minister and lecturer at Howard University, had portrayed her as proselytizing, Cothren said.


The debate may come down to a 1995 “assignment” signed by Mrs. King and all the King children. It gives King Inc. the rights to any tangible or intellectual property involving the Nobel laureate and civil rights icon, King Inc. attorney Nicole Wade said in a written statement. “So any letters between Dr. King and Mrs. King belong to the corporation.”

And Craig Frankel, an attorney for Dexter King, said the Penguin deal is the best way for the family to have control over what is being written about their mother. The children would have a say in which letters should be published and which shouldn’t, Frankel said. “Nothing is going to [be] used in any way that would invade Coretta Scott King’s privacy.”

But Jock Smith, an attorney representing Bernice and brother Martin Luther King III, said it’s Dexter King who would have the control. That’s why his clients have filed a separate suit against their brother, demanding he open the books on King Inc. and hold board meetings.


Smith questioned whether King Inc. has legal rights to the love letters.

“Coretta Scott King was not owned by Martin Luther King Jr.,” Smith said. “Nor does King Inc. own her domain. They seem to think they have some privilege to go into her personal artifacts and claim them to be their own.”