President Johnson’s condolence letter to Coretta Scott King goes up for auction

The condolence letter written by President Lyndon Johnson to the widow of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. after his assassination heads to auction.

FALLS CHURCH, VIRGINIA, UNITED STATES (MARCH 4, 2015) (REUTERS) – After a contentious battle, the condolence letter sent from U.S. President Lyndon Johnson to the widow of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. following his assassination will be auctioned in Northern Virginia on Thursday (March 12), along with other memorabilia.

“We get to sell high value items all the time. Rarely do we get a hold of a piece of history,” said Matthew Quinn of Quinn Auction Gallery in Falls Church. “It’s been humbling,”

The event comes just days after the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery civil rights march led by King, and nearly a year since a legal dispute over the letter’s rightful owner.

King’s wife Coretta Scott King had held onto the letter until 2003, a few years prior to her death, when she gifted it to U.S. singer and social activist Harry Belafonte.

When he attempted to auction it through Sotheby’s auction house in 2008, King’s children vehemently objected.

The auction was canceled and the two sides became embroiled in a legal battle.

At stake was not only the letter from Johnson, but also an outline of King’s “Casualties of the War in Vietnam” speech that Belafonte said he had had in his possession since 1967, and the undelivered “Memphis Speech” found in King’s pocket after his 1968 assassination.

Finally, in spring 2014, they reached a settlement, allowing Belafonte to keep the documents.

However, when the letter goes up for auction this week it will not come from Belafonte, but from Belafonte’s half sister Shirley Cooks, the last person to receive it as a gift.

Her husband Stoney believes that amid the 50th anniversary commemorations of the march on Selma, also known as “Bloody Sunday”, now is the right time to part with the letter.

“I thought the important thing about the letter was not just the letter itself, but the letter and the other things that the president responded to,” he said.

“Remember, in 1968, Dr. King was assassinated. The public was notified of that probably about five-thirty to six o’clock, and then immediately after that people began to burn and riot. There was a state of emergency. But in the midst of all that, the president wrote a very compassionate letter to Mrs. King…I thought that quick response showed something about the nature of the relationship between the two men,” Cooks added.

In the letter, Johnson wrote, “My thoughts have been with you and your children throughout this long and anguished day…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.”

According to Quinn, the opening bid for the document will be $60,000, and has an estimated value of $120,000 to $180,000, but could go for much more.

“I think when you have an opportunity to read it and to understand the emotion that was coming from Johnson in the letter, it’s really profound,” he said.

“When you try to value a letter you will say, what’s Lyndon Johnson’s autograph worth? Content is really what drives value. In this case, to have the heartfelt message from Johnson, to have a presidential document, to have a piece of American history — it can create the perfect storm of items, and we’ll let the bidders decide what it’s worth.”