The estate of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has filed a federal lawsuit against a television news anchor in Mississippi claiming that he has documents taken from the slain civil rights leader by a former employee, the anchor's mother.
The lawsuit, which seeks possession of the papers, was filed Wednesday against Howard Nelson Ballou in U.S. District Court in Jackson. It says Ballou's mother worked for King as a secretary from 1955 to 1960 and kept documents during the time King led the Montgomery Improvement Association and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
King's estate is a Georgia corporation and is operated as a private company by his children. They've fought others for control of the King brand, including suing media companies that used his "I Have a Dream" speech.
Attorneys for the estate say in court papers that the letters, photographs and other items are worth more than $75,000, though the exact value is not clear.
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, Maude Ballou, from civil rights icon Rosa Parks. The material also is thought to contain photographs.
"These documents and items are not only rare and irreplaceable, but of great value and historical importance as well," the lawsuit says.
Ballou, who works as news anchor for Jackson television station WLBT, referred questions to his attorney, Robert Gibbs.
Gibbs said he was contacted in July by the estate's lawyer with inquiries about the materials, which first came into the possession of the Ballou family decades ago. However, Gibbs said there was no negotiation about giving the items back and the lawsuit came as a surprise.
Gibbs said Ballou's parents were both personal friends of King and his King's wife, Coretta Scott King.
"I don't know if the items they've listed are in Howard's possession. What I do know is that Mrs. Ballou received a number of items from Dr. King and Mrs. King and those are rightfully her items," Gibbs said.
The estate's attorneys didn't immediately respond to messages.
The lawsuit says that 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 lawsuit said. The suit says the university contacted Howard Ballou about taking possession of the material because his father was deceased.
The estate's attorneys said in court records that it first learned of the documents in 2010 when a newspaper wrote about them.