Every now and then a minor news story manages to capture, in its details, some particle of truth about contemporary history and the state of the culture. Case in point: a story in last week’s Washington Post entitled “Lyndon Johnson’s letter to MLK’s widow heads to auction after big fight.” Our attention was drawn partly because The Scrapbook has an interest in historical ephemera—manuscripts, daguerreotypes, early recordings, what eBay calls “collectibles”—and stories about Martin Luther King Jr. artifacts are always intriguing.
It seems that, the morning after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson sent a one-page, single-spaced, typewritten letter of condolence to King’s widow, Coretta Scott King. As such things go, it makes for interesting reading. LBJ is not especially eloquent, but certain passages sound as if he might have drafted them himself—“we will overcome this calamity and continue the work of justice and love”—while others have a boilerplate quality: “I am enclosing copies of my statements today so that you may know fully the concerns and intentions that guide me.”
In itself, the letter is of no great historical significance: It reveals nothing that isn’t generally known, it is typed rather than handwritten, and the LBJ Presidential Library in Texas has a copy on file. But it is certainly a poignant artifact of a tragic moment in American history. Framed and stamped, with staple holes in one corner, the letter seems to have been kept by Coretta Scott King until 2003, when, for reasons unknown, she presented it to Harry Belafonte.
Of course, Belafonte, of “Banana Boat Song” fame, was a friend and colleague of the Kings in the civil rights movement. But not long after Mrs. King died in 2006 he shipped the letter to Sotheby’s for auction—and the famously litigious King family swung into action. Mrs. King’s surviving children not only sought to prevent the sale of the letter but claimed that it had been taken from the family’s possession without permission. Whereupon Belafonte sued the King estate, a trial took place, and a settlement was reached last year allowing him to keep the letter.
Now, in turn, Belafonte has given the letter to his half-sister and brother-in-law, fellow civil rights veterans who live in the Washington area and recently concluded that, with publicity surrounding the theatrical release of Selma, this may be the ideal time to sell it. Accordingly, the letter is scheduled to be sold (along with other King mementoes) by a local auctioneer, which is taking no bids for the letter below $60,000. Thus far, the King family has raised no objection.
When the Post reporter asked Harry Belafonte’s brother-in-law why he and his wife didn’t leave such a treasure to their three sons, he laughingly replied, “My greatest worry was that we’d save this stuff for our children, and as soon as we’d die, they’d call someone in and say, ‘How much will you give us for everything?’ ”
Which may well be true. But what a sad commentary on all involved. Of course, Coretta Scott King was within her rights to give the letter as a gift to her friend Harry Belafonte. But the undue haste with which Belafonte sought to sell it when Mrs. King died, and his relatives’ valuation of the letter as cash, only cheapens the document’s tragic significance. O tempora! O mores!