What Becomes a Legend Most?


People outside of her family may never know why Malikah Brown, one of the six daughters of Malcolm X, loaded up a sizable collection of his manuscripts, diaries, photographs, and negatives, and secretly hauled them off to a storage locker in Florida and then never reclaimed them. But when a still elusive man named James Calhoun bought the storage contents and then offered them to an auction house for sale, a door was opened into what remains of the papers of Malcolm X, later known as Malcolm Shabazz. It took legal action to stop that sale, and scholars and community activists alike hope that the outcome of this strange saga will be that steps are taken to preserve the intellectual legacy of this influential maverick.

Butterfields, a San Francisco auction house owned by eBay, appraised the materials at between $300,000 and $500,000, and scheduled them for its March 20 sale, but pulled the documents when questions arose about their history and ownership. At this point, an agreement will have to be made between the heirs (including Brown), the storage company, and Calhoun. Butterfields spokesman Levi Morgan said they are not part of any future auction and Calhoun is also waiting for “the process to come to some resolution.” If the papers are returned, most of the Shabazz daughters want to place them with the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.

The 39-year-old husband and father who wrote these diaries and papers knew toward the end that he was doomed, but with that exception, his story is like the myth of Osiris, who was murdered in a power struggle and whose remains were scattered throughout Egypt by the Nile waters. Wherever his remains landed, a temple grew up in his honor. His wife, Isis, brought his spirit back to life by reclaiming fragments from these sites. Malcolm built many temples in life, but after his 1965 assassination, his widow, Betty, and daughters (Attalah, Qubilah, Ilyasah, Gamilah, Malaak, and Malikah) were left in great jeopardy and his possessions were scattered. As a consequence, for 37 years, his published legacy has been The Autobiography of Malcolm X, recorded speeches, and books by a number of people (including me) who’ve never studied his papers. Now we will see what arises from the Florida locker cache.

As these events unfolded, the Sotheby’s auction house, at the behest of the family of Martin Luther King Jr., the celebrated leader of the Southern civil rights movement, has been quietly preparing a private sale of about 80,000 pages of King’s papers, valued at $30 million. At press time neither Sotheby’s nor Intellectual Property Management, which handles the King estate, had returned Voice phone calls.

King’s 1968 assassination also put his family in great jeopardy, and his widow, Coretta, and four children (Yolanda, M. L. King III, Bernice, and Dexter) have experienced decades of haphazard income. The personal harm done to these people is incalculable, but the King family’s management of the estate has some of the elements of a 19th-century English novel. The father’s death without any wealth has defined the family’s economic situation for the past 35 years. Their attempts to gain serious remuneration for use of King’s speeches, manuscripts, and image, particularly in the past few years, have led to rancorous encounters that have damaged the family’s reputation. At this point, so little of King’s work can be used that no less than his place with younger generations is at stake.

By Any Means Possible

Of the materials listed in the sketchy Butterfields catalog for “the Malcolm X Collection,” Shabazz scholars are especially excited by the handwritten manuscripts, his annotated personal Koran, and diaries from the last weeks of his life, which included travel to Mecca, Africa, and Europe. Writers of all stripes have developed theories of his eventual political direction. These manuscripts should at least narrow the debate.

“The two sets of diaries are likely to be among the more important,” said Howard Dodson, chief of the Schomburg Center, “because his autobiography was completed before he returned from abroad, and though some of his thoughts during those trips are in Alex Haley’s afterword, Haley probably pulled that from his own correspondence from Malcolm.”

Dodson also said the written record will probably revise thinking about his speeches. “There were many assumptions that he riffed, improvised, and things weren’t written down, but he structured them, and so it will be interesting to see how he worked with the manuscripts when speaking.”

“History has a way of showing the value of the work people have done,” said Joseph Fleming, lawyer for most of the Shabazz heirs. Asked about the papers’ journey from Malcolm’s hands to Butterfields, he said, “The material, given its age, has traveled from place to place. The papers were possibly in the Hotel Theresa in Harlem for a time, but they were in the possession of Dr. Betty Shabazz at the time of her death, and stored in property owned by the family.” But how did the material get to a San Francisco auction house?

Those who’ve tracked Malcolm X documents for years include the family, the Schomburg, and universities like Columbia and Emory that have Shabazz collections. But smaller grassroots organizations, usually headed up by people who knew Shabazz, like the Malcolm X Museum and, have been looking, too.

One of the trackers is Herb Boyd of The Black World Today and The Amsterdam News, who told a story dating to Malcolm’s final days (I have added the dates). On February 13, 1965, Shabazz returned from London and an aborted trip to France, where authorities would not let him enter the country. Late that night the family home in Queens was firebombed, and yet within six hours Malcolm was at an event in Detroit, which Boyd attended. Boyd was stunned that Shabazz came, and remembered that his clothes smelled of smoke. He flew back home and the next day moved his family and remaining belongings out of the house.

X Files in Harlem

The story of another set of Malcolm X papers surfaced during the sale of a Harlem brownstone in March. Real estate broker Willie Kathryn Suggs told the Voice that in 1992, when she was showing a house for sale at 224 West 139th Street, she saw a group of boxes in the house. Looking closer, she saw Malcolm X’s name on them.

“It was not our listing, so I ran outside to the house’s broker,” she said, “and he said, ‘Yeah, this was Malcolm’s house.’ When asked what he was going to do with them, he said, ‘Throw them out.’ ” She suggested calling the Schomburg or just rescuing them and he refused. ” ‘Nobody cares anymore,’ he said. Of course, I had no legal right to do anything.”

The house was sold to a New York City fireman, who later told Suggs a story about an unsuccessful attempt to return the boxes to Betty Shabazz. This year when he sold the house, Suggs represented him. At the March 4 closing, she found one last box. Inside were programs, dated two years after his death, that celebrated Malcolm X Day. They were imprinted with the name of a group he founded, the Organization of African American Unity, located at 224 West 139th Street. Suggs is returning the box to the Shabazz family. —T.D.

The Shabazz family took shelter with Thomas X Wallace, who had left the Nation of Islam when Malcolm did. On February 21, Malcolm X was killed. Three men associated with the NOI were arrested. Members of the NOI had been threatening Wallace, and had assaulted him once, so he may have removed Malcolm’s papers from his home to protect them. And it is possible that at this juncture they were kept at the Hotel Theresa.

The Koran in the auction lot is one clue that the Butterfields material includes belongings that were moved after the firebombing. It is highly unlikely that days before his death Malcolm Shabazz would have replaced it. In any case, the papers were eventually returned to Betty Shabazz, and in 1999, according to Fleming, her daughters “thought they were safely stored where they should have been. It was not until the auction was announced that they became aware that the materials were not where they were supposed to be.”

According to court documents, on May 17, 1999, Malikah Shabazz Brown rented locker #1614 at a Public Storage, Inc., facility at 1355 South Semoran Boulevard, in Casselberry, Florida, near Orlando. Brown took the materials to Florida, Fleming told the Voice, without the knowledge or consent of her sisters. Efforts by the Voice to reach Brown were unsuccessful. The date is intriguing because at that time Butterfields had set a May 27 date to sell a bloodstained, bullet-ridden diary that had been on Shabazz’s person when he was killed. The New York Times reported on May 15, 1999, that the ownership of the diary was in dispute, that it appeared to have been stolen from an NYPD evidence envelope, and that Joseph Fleming was trying to block its sale. He succeeded and the family reclaimed the diary.

It’s not clear how long Brown stayed in Florida, although a source close to Brown said it was only about two months. After that, she reportedly packed her belongings, picked up some boxes from a storage unit, and traveled back north.

By July 2001, the rent was approximately $600 in arrears, according to several sources. At that time, Public Storage seized the contents of the locker and arranged to put them up for sale on September 20. Under Florida law, according to Fleming, “a renter is to receive a 15-day notice between the first notification of impending sale and the sale date.” But Brown’s first notice was dated September 7, he said, which would have left only 13 days before the sale on September 20. On that day, the lot was sold to a man listed in court documents as James Calhoun. If the storage company’s notification procedure turns out to have been faulty, then the sale of the Shabazz lot to Calhoun will be null and void. Fleming said that so far as he knows, Brown was not living in the state when the materials were seized by Public Storage or when they were sold.

Calhoun, a man who may have been adventurous enough to plunk down $600 for a lot of goods he knew nothing about, is still a mystery. It’s more sensible to assume he was allowed to browse the goods before the auction or, more troublesome, that he was tipped off to their newsworthy provenance. Asked if he suspected that inside information did come to Calhoun, Fleming said, “I am suspicious about every element of this process.”

Men by the name of James Calhoun are not easy to locate in the Orlando area. The best information the Voice was able to obtain is that the Shabazz family was told that he lives in Florida and operates a flea market, selling goods on the street, and that there may be both a father and son by that name. Calls to all the flea markets listed in the Orlando area, including one dealer who searched a local flea market database, yielded no one who had ever heard of James Calhoun.

When Calhoun attempted to sell the Malcolm X papers through Butterfields, according to Fleming and another source close to the case, the auction house did not notify the family. So it was only when Butterfields announced a sale that Brown’s sisters became aware that the materials had been taken to Florida. Even though Butterfields decided to halt the sale, Public Storage, presumably recognizing there might liability for the firm, got an injunction to keep the papers off the auction block. Carl Phelps, general counsel for Public Storage, declined to comment. Now all the parties are trying to sort it out.

Dodson said, “The family has said that it is their desire to have the material deposited at the Schomburg Center and made available to scholars, reserving the right to go through and remove any materials they consider personal, or restrict certain uses, as is often the practice.” No one has said that there is unanimity yet among the daughters, though, and Brown is reported to being holding out for another disposition. Fleming characterized her “interest in the material” as “limited.”

Asked if the Butterfields appraisal seemed an appropriate one, he said, that his Shabazz-family clients “really have an aversion to establishing a monetary value for the materials.” Still, he said, the Shabazz heirs would retain copyright control. “The family has periodically licensed the name, image, and works, and that will continue, or as Attalah Shabazz said, ‘We will always be the proprietors of our own legacy.’ ”

Private Sale

The Martin Luther King papers being put up for sale at Sotheby’s are most likely the same papers that were nearly sold in a 1999 deal with the Library of Congress nixed by conservatives in Congress. According to an expert at one interested university who asked not to be named, the block of papers includes 7000 pages of handwritten manuscripts, King’s complete personal library, replete with books annotated by him, and even a seminary report card giving him a C in public speaking.

Those institutions contacted for this quiet Sotheby’s sale include a number that have been invited at least once before to consider purchasing the papers, and some who had interest in the Shabazz trove as well. Among them are public and private university libraries with substantial holdings pertaining to African American history, King, or the civil rights movement, as well as major collections. The directors of two institutions contacted by Sotheby’s about the King sale told the Voice that they were cautioned not to talk with the press, and several others contacted by the Voice were on spring break.

Don E. Carleton, director of the Center for American History at the University of Texas, Austin, told the Voice that he received a message within the last several weeks inviting him to a “special showing” of the King materials at Sotheby’s. But he’s seen them before, because he was contacted to examine them in the late ’90s, before the Library of Congress deal, when they were appraised at between $28 million and $30 million.

But even then the asking price seemed too steep. “The value is subjective, but we felt it was priced beyond market,” said Carleton. “It’s not any reflection on Dr. King’s value as a human being, of course, but we couldn’t consider the amounts they were talking about and couldn’t justify it.” His institution, he said, had never before paid such a sum for papers. In 1997, both Emory and Stanford universities also evaluated and failed to acquire the same documents.

There have been several stumbling blocks over the years. One is that the Kings opted to leave out all the papers pertaining to the work of King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), with which he worked. This means, according to Louise Cook, former director of the King Center’s Library Archives and Museum in Atlanta, that the papers for sale represent less than a tenth of the papers.

When the Library of Congress (LOC) tried to get the collection in 1999, detractors of the deal said that the family was asking for a fee, getting free housing and preservation for the papers, but not yielding ownership (and the consequent royalties)—only their physical presence. The LOC offered to pay $20 million, with $10 million of the value being given by the Kings as a donation (and possible tax deduction). But the potential sale really went south when Pulitzer Prize-winning King biographer and Emory law professor David Garrow was quoted across the country disparaging the papers’ worth, the price, and the King family in general. House conservatives jumped on the bandwagon, and the deal failed. But the King family’s financial needs were perhaps acute, because that same year, they allowed the National Park Service, with whom they had had earlier spats, to buy the King Center, the family home, his 1960 Chevy, and even the wagon that pulled his coffin, for an undisclosed sum.

Fueling some of the animosity toward the King family is a history of nasty encounters over copyright uses (especially with broadcasters), a reputed stinginess with scholarly access to the papers, and high licensing fees. And critics probably assume they’re making a lot from a 1997 deal with AOL Time Warner, in which the Kings licensed use of the same repository to Warner Books for an undisclosed advance (rumored to be between $2 million and $3 million) on seven King-related projects, including CD-ROMs, speech recordings, Web sites, and books. Most of these projects have yet to be completed.

The Kings are famous for asserting that they are trying to protect the King image from demeaning usage and are raising money for the nonprofit King Center for Non-Violent Social Change, which they still run and, tellingly, is now called simply the King Center. And Coretta King has said that she received only a $50,000 life insurance benefit at her husband’s death and that most of her own income is from public speaking. When Coretta opened the center in 1968, almost any activist in America would have been happy to help train would-be activists. The realization of this mission could have had a profound effect on local and national struggles around the country. But the center’s track record is dismal. Many think it is simply being used as a tourism cash cow that has trodden on the surrounding poor black community.

Finally, there was a saddening episode last year over a federal plan to build a $100 million national memorial honoring King between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials. General Motors had already donated $750,000 when negotiations with the Kings stalled over a “permissions agreement” that might have involved a fee to the heirs. So there is a real question as to whether another attempt to sell the papers by auction will work and, more importantly, whether King’s vision—his true legacy—will get a much needed rebirth.