MLK’s estate loses appeal seeking documents

NEW ORLEANS – The estate of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Inc. lost an appeal in the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals according to an an opinion filed March 8.

The case concerns documents relating to Dr. King’s time at the Montgomery Improvement Association and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The documents are in the possession of Howard Nelson Ballou of Mississippi, the defendant in the original suit. These documents were sought by the estate through claims of replevin and conversion.

The documents included, according to, handwritten letters from King, transcripts of speeches he delivered, statements and newsletters he authored and a handwritten letter by Rosa Parks,.

The documents came into possession of Ballou’s mother, Maude Ballou in the course of her work as Dr. King’s personal secretary over the course of five years. She worked for Dr. King at both the Montgomery Improvement Association, where she helped organize the bus boycott and at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Maude Ballou said in a sworn statement that Dr. King, who died without a will, gave her the documents and that she always considered them her personal belongings.

In the summer of 1960, Maude Ballou moved to Alabama with her family and left Dr. King’s employ. She and her husband began working at the Elizabeth City State University. Her husband was an archivist and as such he stored the documents in the university’s library.

In 2007, after his death, another archivist discovered the documents and returned them to Howard Ballou. A newspaper story in Feb. 2011 mentioned the discovery, and the estate asked Ballou to return the documents. Howard made no response and the estate sued in a Mississippi District Court.

Howard Ballou moved for a summary judgement, arguing that the statute of limitations barred the estate’s claims or that, alternatively, Dr. King “gave the documents to Ms. Ballou as a gift, thereby divesting the Estate of any ownership interest in the documents.”

The district court found that the statute of limitations period commenced when Maude Ballou left Dr. King’s employ in 1960, and therefore the limitations period had run. The court also granted the motion on the alternative claim. The estate claims, however, that Ms. Ballou “took many of Dr. King’s documents, photographs and other items with her” and had “no personal right or ownership of these documents.”

In a per curiam opinion, the panel consisting of Circuit Judges Edith H. Jones, James L. Dennis and Catharina Haynes wrote that even if Ms. Ballou did not have rightful ownership of the documents, that is, if they were not a gift, the statue of limitations has run. The panel affirmed the district court’s summary judgement based on the statue of limitations.  

Case No. 12-60306

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