A federal appeals court on Friday handed a victory to a former Charlotte woman in her fight to keep letters and papers given to her by Martin Luther King Jr. at the start of the Civil Rights movement.
The 5th Circuit federal appeals court in New Orleans ruled in favor of Maude Ballou, a retired Charlotte teacher, and against King’s estate.
The estate had sued Ballou, 87, arguing that there was “no dispute that these documents are the property of Dr. King.”
The appeals court ruled that since the documents had come into Ballou’s possession before 1960, the statute of limitations had expired.
The Observer wrote about Ballou’s case in January, the same month she moved from Charlotte to Mississippi to be near her son Howard.
In 1955, she was King’s secretary in Montgomery, Ala., and moved with his family to Atlanta in 1960. Along the way King, and even Rosa Parks, gave her papers documenting those early days.
When Parks’ arrest sparked a mass meeting and the creation of the Montgomery Improvement Association, the 26-year-old King was elected to lead it. He asked Ballou to work with him.
She managed King’s growing schedule of meetings and appearances. She organized carpools and one night awoke to the bombing of King’s home. Ballou managed King’s schedule and travel, even after the boycott ended.
Along the way, she accumulated several boxes of letters, mementoes and other documents, many given to her by King. The estate claimed it all was worth $75,000.
The suit was among the latest in a series of legal actions taken in the name of King’s estate. But one King biographer said the fight with Ballou’s family is different.
In January historian David Garrow called the suit “heartless.”
“To sue somebody like Ms. Ballou, who worked for Dr. King and was totally loyal to Dr. King betrays a sort of scorched-earth attitude,” he said.
Howard Ballou called the suit “ridiculous and frivolous.”
“For us to have to go through the expense and stress of having to defend what was already ours in the first place was just ridiculous,” he said. “I’m thankful to God that justice prevailed. I’m happy my mother doesn’t have to go through this anymore. It’s taken its toll on her.” Researcher Maria David contributed.