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Martin Luther King


April 4, 1968 is the 50th anniversary of the death of civil rights leader Martin Luther King. To commemorate his legacy, our new feature '10 Most Valuable' takes a look at some of the most valuable and important items of his memorabilia ever sold.

Communism letter

Image: Heritage Auctions

From the off, King's activities attracted the attention of the FBI. In one of many attempts to discredit him, the agency consistently tried to tar him with association to communism.
He always strongly denied any link.

This letter, which King wrote to the head of a school in 1964, includes the lines: "You are rightly concerned about the question of Communist infiltration of the civil rights movement. We, too, are concerned and forever on guard against any such infiltration.

"As we are true to the Constitutional promise of liberty and justice for all, we will remove any threat of Communism, Black Nationalism, Fascism or violence."

It sold for $7,500 at Heritage Auctions in 2012.

Signed photograph

Image: Profiles in History

This exceptional signed photograph of Dr King dates to 1960 and is inscribed to Lawrence Spivak, then host of Meet the Press on NBC.

It reads: "To Lawrence Spivak, with great respect and admiration, Martin Luther King, Jr."

King appeared on the show on April 17, 1960, where he discussed issues surrounding the civil rights movement.

The photograph sold for $8,000 at Profiles in History in 2010.

Brando letter

Image: Christie's

This typewritten signed letter was formerly part of the collection of Marlon Brando and sold for $13,200 at Christie's New York in 2005.

King wrote to Brando in 1959 asking for his support in ending segregation in schools. The letter reads, in part: "We need the help of important Americans for whom the youth of the nation have respect. You are such an American.

"We would be honoured if you would lend your name to the sponsorship of the Petition Campaign and Youth March for Integrated Schools of 1959."

Brando did sign the petition and later helped out on multiple occasions.

Sanitation Workers of Memphis protest placard

Image: Swann Auction Galleries

This original cardboard protest placard was carried by protestors in the aftermath of King's assassination.

On February 12, 1968, the Sanitation Workers of Memphis Tennessee called a strike to demand higher pay and safer working conditions. The strike continued through March, and at the beginning of April King travelled to Memphis to join the cause.

He was scheduled to address a huge rally on April 8, but on April 4, whilst staying at The Lorraine Motel in Memphis, he was shot and killed on his balcony by James Earl Ray.

Following his death, striking workers carried these placards in his honour and King's widow Coretta led the rally in her husband's absence.

With its message undimmed after half a century, this rare surviving placard sold at Swann Auction Galleries in New York in 2016 for $25,000.

Dexter Avenue farewell speech

Image: Heritage Auctions

In 1959, King left his old headquarters at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama for Atlanta – where he was to take up his new position as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

This set of keynotes from his last address to his congregation sold for $31,250 at Heritage Auctions in 2013.

Working draft of the Letter from Birmingham Jail

Image: Swann Auction Galleries

This original typed document is a rare working draft of King's Letter from Birmingham Jail, one of the most important texts for the American Civil Rights Movement.

On April 12, 1963, King was arrested during demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama and imprisoned in the local city jail.

During his imprisonment he wrote the document as an open letter defending the strategy of nonviolent resistance to racism.

King wrote that people had a moral responsibility to break unjust laws and to take direct action, rather than waiting for justice to come through the courts, and stated "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere".

Without access to paper, he wrote sections in the margins of newspapers, which were then smuggled out by his associates and pieced together for publication.

This rare early version of the letter, dated April 16, 1963, features corrections and deletions by hand, and sold at Swann Auction galleries in New York in March 2017 for $40,000.

Signed copy of Stride Toward Freedom

Image: Hake's Americana

On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, black woman Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat for a white passenger. Her subsequent arrest sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 12 months of protests that culminated with the end of segregation on the city’s buses. It is the earliest civil rights protest in the US and brought the Montgomery Improvement Association’s leader, Martin Luther King, to national prominence.

King’s 1957 account of the boycott is an absorbing read, particularly his chapter on Pilgrimage to Nonviolence, in which he establishes his policy of befriending oppressors rather than attempting to humiliate them.

King signed this copy for Chief Justice Earl Warren, a key player in the drive to end segregation in US schools in the 1950s.

It reads: "To Justice Earl Warren, In appreciation for your genuine good-will, your great humanitarian concern, and for your unswerving devotion to the sublime principles of our American democracy.

"With warm Regards, Martin L. King Jr." 

The book sold for $49,335 at Hake's Americana in 2015.

"The price paid for the book did not surprise us. It is a historic artifact of the highest magnitude and truly a one-of-a-kind piece,” said Hake’s.

"Both men associated with the book were integral figures in the civil rights movement, and the importance of their legacy cannot be overstated.

Lyndon Johnson letter 

This letter was sent by President Lyndon Johnson to King's grieving widow on April 5, 1968 - the day after his murder. 

Image: Quinn's Auction Galleries

It reads, in part: "Since early morning, I have devoted all my hours and energy to honouring your good husband in the manner he would most approve. I have sought - by word, deed, and official act - to unite this sorrowing and troubled nation against further and wider violence…

"We found more than grief to share. I wanted you to know tonight of the determination that binds us: We will overcome this calamity and continue the work of justice and love that is Martin Luther King's legacy and trust to us.

"I am also determined that the assassin will be found and punished. The full powers of local and Federal authority are marshalled now to assure it…"

The letter sold for $175,000 at Quinn's Auction Galleries in Virginia earlier this year.

Notes for We Shall Overcome speech

Image: Goldin Auctions

We Shall Overcome – the words taken from a gospel song – became a rallying cry for the black civil rights movement in the 1960s.

King’s speech at Chicago’s United Church of Christ in 1965 was among the first times he had used the phrase. He would return to it just three days before he was killed, in his final sermon on March 31, 1968. The poignancy of those three words still resonates today.

King’s 20 pages of notes for his Chicago sermon, including a final page almost entirely written by King’s hand, auctioned for $382,000 in 2017. 

The Martin Luther King Archive

Image: Morehouse College

In June 2006 King's family placed his entire personal archive up for auction as a single lot, with an estimated price of $15 - $30 million.

The historically important archive encompassed more than 10,000 items, including around 7,000 documents written by King himself between 1946 and 1968, most of which were previously unpublished and unseen by historians.

Notable pieces in the collection included original draft versions of his 1963 Washington March "I Have a Dream" speech and his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize lecture, along with correspondence with major politicians such as John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

The archive also contained a wealth of personal items, ranging from King's library of books to his suitcase, airline tickets and returned cheques.

Prior to the public auction, the archive was acquired in a private treaty sale by the city of Atlanta, in a deal brokered by Mayor Shirley Franklin. According to reports, the archive was eventually sold for $32 million, to fend off competition from other private buyers.

"I didn't want to risk losing the papers over a million dollars," Franklin told the New York Times. "To Atlanta they are priceless."

The entire collection was then donated to Morehouse College, Dr King's alma mater, where his father, grandfather and two sons also studied. The historically black college was also the scene of King's funeral following his assassination in 1968.

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