Martin Luther King Jr. as advice columnist
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    Auction Finds

    The value of a Martin Luther King Jr. signed letter

    When I enter an auction house and see documents and papers, I immediately head to them. I love flipping through the old stuff to see what bit of history is embedded in them. Who knows, maybe I’ll find a letter signed by a famous person or an important document hidden between an innocuous stack of discarded papers.

    An auctioneer at one of my regular spots has seen me looking through papers so often that he felt obliged to tell me about an auction of ephemera – documents and other papers – that was coming up in a few weeks.

    letter signed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

    A letter from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to a Philadelphia police officer who was part of his security in 1965.

    I’m not only interested in the signatures but also the documents that they’re written on. So, I was naturally curious when I read that a rare-documents dealer called Raab Collection in Ardmore, PA, was selling a letter from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to a Philadelphia police officer who had been assigned to his security.

    In the letter, King minimized his concern for his safety – although he was inundated with death threats both in the North and South – and thanked the officer for considering him important enough to be protected.

    In the May 21, 1965, typed letter to Sgt. James Adair, King was referring to a May 1 “Law Day USA” visit to the University of Pennsylvania, where he had sat on several panels.

    The letter is being sold – not at auction but outright – for the officer’s family at a price of $10,500.

    letter signed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

    Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s signature.

    When I read about the letter, I wondered about other documents bearing King’s signature – the rarity, the popularity and the value. I’m sure that he wrote many letters, and as many that have turned up, just as many have likely been forgotten or thrown away.

    King’s signature is apparently in great demand. The website of one dealer in signed documents said it was very scarce (and thereby collectible), noting that many of the letters have remained in families that are not willing to part with them. The website was selling King’s book “Stride Toward Freedom,” an Eastern Airlines ticket stub, a Hertz rental folder, among others, for $4,750 to $27,500.

    Another autograph site mentioned other King-signed items of value: letters about the civil rights movement, programs, photographs and magazine covers, and even a simple signature on plain paper.

    letter signed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

    A version of "Letter From A Birmingham Jail" with corrections, one of many documents that were set to be sold at auction.

    One of the most important of King’s writings was his “Letter From A Birmingham Jail,” scribbled after sit-ins and demonstrations in that Alabama city in April 1963. King wrote it in response to white religious leaders who – in a story in the Birmingham News – had called his work “unwise and untimely,” and admonished him as an outsider stirring up trouble. King was placed in a jail cell in solitary confinement, and the letter was smuggled out by his attorneys.

    Earlier this year, I read a statement made by King associate Andrew Young at the National Association of Journalists Convention in 1984. He talked about the power of that speech and the tragedy of what happened to the original documents.

    “They wouldn’t let him have any paper to write on, but they would bring the newspapers, so every day he would write on the margins of the newspaper and would get it out, and when he got through with that, he would write on the toilet paper that was left,” Young said.

    “And the secretary that transcribed it didn’t have sense enough to keep it, because we are not appreciative of the written word. We don’t understand that the pen is as powerful — more powerful — than the sword, still in this day and time.”

    letter signed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

    A rental car folder and airlines ticket stub signed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Photo from website.

    King wrote along the edges of the Birmingham newspaper, on toilet paper and later a notepad. That secretary was a 21-year-old woman named Willie Pearl Mackey who in her own way had protested instances of the harsh treatment of blacks in Atlanta.

    Young may have been a little too harsh on Mackey, who like many of that era – and even now – didn’t consider the significance of the letter (according to accounts, she was too busy and furiously typing it). Apparently, neither did Young or Mackey’s boss, Wyatt Walker, who was executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Walker helped her decipher some of what he called King’s “chicken scratch.” Once finished, a draft was sneaked into King’s cell, he made corrections, and it was smuggled back out.

    Can you imagine the value – not necessarily monetary – of the original newspaper and toilet paper today?

    letter signed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

    A 1960 letter of appreciation to Sammy Davis Jr. from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Photo from website.

    A version of the letter with corrections by King was among papers offered for sale at a Sotheby’s auction by his family in 2006. The collection was saved when a group in Atlanta bought the original manuscripts, sermons and books. Now called the Morehouse College Martin Luther King Collection, it is housed in the Robert W. Woodruff Library at the Atlanta University Center.

    When I Googled King’s signature, I found many books, letters and more – some written on his personal stationery and others on the SCLC letterhead. He penned a letter to newspaper people like Eugene Patterson, editor of the Atlanta Constitution who wrote in support of the movement.

    He regretfully turn down an invitation for him and his wife Coretta to attend a conference in Italy (the letter was selling for $9,500). He wrote an appreciative note inside his book of sermons “Strength to Love” to a neighbor who babysat his children (for sale at $25,000). He wrote a letter in 1960 to Sammy Davis Jr. thanking him for his work with the movement (sold for $8,000).

    I haven’t been fortunate enough to come across a King signature at auction. Recently, though, I had my eye on a 1952 letter written by W.E.B. DuBois pertaining to the civil rights movement. So, I waited around for the document to come open for bids, hoping against hope that no on the floor, on the phone or on the internet would bid roo high for it. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get it.






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