By HOLBROOK MOHR
JACKSON — A popular Mississippi television anchor wants a federal judge to throw out a lawsuit brought by the estate of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that seeks documents and other material connected to the civil rights leader.
The lawsuit was filed in September in U.S. District Court in Jackson against Howard Ballou, an anchor for Jackson-based WLBT-TV. The suit 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.
Ballou responded to the lawsuit in court papers that said his parents were personal friends of King and his father and King were fraternity brothers. He insists the letters, photographs and other items were gifts and rightfully belong to his family.
Ballou’s lawyer filed a motion Friday for summary judgment, a legal ruling based on statements and evidence submitted to the court without a trial. In this case, Ballou says the facts are simple and that the material belongs to his family. The motion says Ballou’s 86-year-old mother clearly remembers that King “intentionally and gratuitously” gave her some of the material and that some the items are letters addressed to her.
“In fact, during the exchange, Maude Ballou recalls Dr. King expressly stating, ‘Here Maude, this is for you,”‘ court filings said.
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 from civil rights icon Rosa Parks.
King’s estate, a Georgia corporation operated as a private company by his children, said in court records that the motion for summary judgment is premature. The estate wants the motion to be denied or continued until the parties conduct discovery, in which the King material could be studied and catalogued. The items are being kept in a bank’s safe deposit box, court records said.
The estate is known to fight for control of the King brand and has sued media companies that used his “I Have a Dream” speech. They say the material is worth more than $75,000.
“These documents and items are not only rare and irreplaceable, but of great value and historical importance as well,” the lawsuit says.
The court filings by the King estate also claim Maude Ballou doesn’t own the material because it was collected as part of her employment.
“Courts have recognized that an employee does not have ownership rights over documents and items belonging to her employer simply because she obtained the documents by way of her employment, even if she created them,” the court filings said.
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 says. The university contacted Howard Ballou about taking possession of the material because his father was deceased. His mother, however, is alive.
The estate’s attorneys said in court records that it first learned of the documents in 2010 when a newspaper wrote about them.
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