After Dispute, Lyndon B. Johnson’s Letter to Martin Luther King Jr.’s Widow Heads to Auction

Bob Adelman, Martin Luther King Jr. delivering the "I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.
Photo: Bob Adelman, via the Library of Congress.

On April 5, 1968, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was fatally shot on the balcony of a Memphis hotel, President Lyndon B. Johnson wrote a letter to the widowed Coretta Scott King expressing his condolences and his intent to find the assassin. That letter is now headed to auction at Quinn’s Auction Galleries in Northern Virginia where it will go up for sale on March 5.

Scott King kept the historical letter until 2003, when she bequeathed it to her husband’s confidante, Harry Belafonte, unknowing he would later desire to sell it.

When Belafonte considered sending the item to auction through Sotheby’s in 2008 after Scott King died, King’s three children objected. According to the Washington Post, the heirs have long held a tight grip over their father’s legacy, restricting use by news organizations of the I Have a Dream speech and suing the civil rights leader’s former secretary and her son to stop the sale of documents King had given her.

After a dispute broke out over the rightful owner of the letter, Sotheby’s canceled the auction. Subsequently, Belafonte sued the King estate, and they reached a settlement whereby Belafonte was allowed to keep the document.

Now, as the nation celebrates the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches, the letter is being offered for sale, once again. It’s being offered along with a plethora of other King memorabilia.

Last year, Belafonte gifted the letter to his half-sister, Shirley and her husband, Stoney Cooks, and they have both decided to cash in on the Selma moment, as the film based on the historical event was recently nominated for an Oscar for Best Film. Common and John Legend’s song “Glory,” for the film, won an Academy Award. Stoney Cooks also added that the film portrayed the president “being at odds” with King, and he wanted to take this letter to auction to “show the true character of LBJ.”

Minimum bid for the artifact will be $60,000, and Quinn’s expects it to sell for at least $120,000.

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