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Rare MLK letter on sale for $95,000

ATLANTA -- A letter never before seen by the general public that offers a glimpse of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s evolving thoughts on the Vietnam War is up for sale -- again.

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Ernie Suggs
, Cox Newspapers

ATLANTA -- A letter never before seen by the general public that offers a glimpse of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s evolving thoughts on the Vietnam War is up for sale -- again.

Last week, the original owner of the letter, Era Blakney, quietly sold it for $6,500 through an online New York auction house.

A California-based memorabilia dealer -- the same one who tried to sell the Memphis hearse that transported King's body -- is trying to flip the 1966 letter for $95,000.

"Oh my God," Blakney said when told the new asking price. "That is amazing to me. It really and truly is."

Gary Zimet, who purchased the letter at the original auction through his company, Moments in Time, said it is available for private sale on a "first-come, first-serve basis."

"Is it worth, say, $20,000? I could see that," said King biographer David Garrow, who has read mountains of King's papers. "But $95,000? Only if you're some super-bazillionaire."

With fees, Zimet said he ended up spending $8,300 for the letter. But he said he can justify seeking more than 10 times that amount.

"In my business, pricing is highly subjective. I have been in the business for 40 years and this is the most extraordinary thing to ever hit he market," Zimet said. "When one gets a truly extraordinary item like this one, one can ask the moon. I am asking for the moon."

In April, the asking price was $2.5 million when Zimet tried to broker the sale of the hearse that carried King's body through Memphis -- from the hospital to the funeral home, and from the funeral home to the airport.

Zimet told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Wednesday that the hearse never sold.

King biographer Clayborne Carson is concerned about how much is being sought for the King missive.

"I have no way of knowing how people price that kind of stuff. But it seems like a high price for a one-page letter," said Carson, the director of Stanford University's Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute. "This frustrates me because the more people think of letters for monetary value, the less available they become for historians."

Carson said he never knew about the letter, nor did he know who Blakney was. That's understandable, since King sent the letter to Blakney in answer to one that she wrote to him. They were not acquaintances. Rather, Blakney, like countless others, was aware of reports that King had started to voice opposition to the Vietnam War. She didn't approve and put her opinion on paper.

Blakney said the letter she received in response was sitting in her library since 1966. But when she decided to part with it, she couldn't give it away.

"Time is passing by and I knew that my children wouldn't know what to do," Blakney said. "It would otherwise just stay in my library. It is history, and you don't want it to get lost. I wanted to get it in hands who would appreciate it."

The letter is dated Sept. 26, 1966, and was mailed from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's Chicago office. King moved his family to Chicago in the summer of 1966 to experience urban poverty first hand.

At that time, King had started quietly speaking out against the Vietnam War.

Blakney -- who owned a popular rib joint in Toledo, Ohio, for more than 25 years, and whose husband, Simmie S. Blakney, was a mathematician at the University of Toledo -- felt King shouldn't venture into war talk.

"A lot of things were going on at that time," said Blakney, who worked to promote fair housing in Ohio. "I thought it was too big and that his attention to the war would take away from what was going on in the country," she said.

As was the custom in the 1960s, King addressed his letter to "Mrs. S.S. Blakney."

"Not only is the war reprehensible on moral grounds, but from a practical standpoint, it is draining billions of dollars from urgently needed federal assistance programs for our own citizens, black and white," King wrote. "In addition, the inequalities of the present military draft system place an unequal burden on Negro men for service in Vietnam. We believe it grossly unjust to ask a man to fight in such a war only to come home to face indignities and de facto slavery in his own country."

Blakney said King changed her point of view.

"He saw the two being interrelated -- the war and the civil rights," Blakney said. "After he explained it to me, it made sense."

Historians who have studied King said the letter is a key clue to the civil rights leader's development.

"I do think it significantly reflects how deeply troubled King was about the Vietnam War at a time when he was still reluctantly refraining from giving full public voice to his feelings," said Garrow, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his massive book, "Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference."

Coming off his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, King grew restless about the country's efforts in Vietnam. In 1966, he started throwing out hints of opposition and called for a negotiated settlement in June. President Lyndon B. Johnson's administration and key members of the SCLC begged King to focus solely on civil rights and problems at home.

It wasn't until April 4, 1967, exactly a year before he was assassinated, that he liberated himself from the constraints of political correctness, political allegiance and popular opinion by delivering his "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence" speech at Riverside Church in New York City.

"It is an interesting letter because it comes at a time when he hadn't taken a public stand on the war," Carson said of the missive mailed to Blakney.

The letter ends with King urging Blakney to "speak out" -- which was an overriding theme of his Riverside speech.

"Basically, he was telling this person not to be silent," Carson said. "He was inching forward in terms of his perspective."

Blakeney, who wouldn't give her age but joked that she gets Social Security, said she called around to see whether any institutions would be interested in the letter but got no response. "I was surprised that no one stepped forward."

Blakney said she and her son also called Intellectual Properties Management, the exclusive licenser of the King estate, several times but never heard back.

"How is it that the King estate does not have anyone to answer the telephone?" she said.

So she reached out to the New York City auction house Guernsey's, which included the letter in a July 26 auction of African-American cultural and historic items. A house once lived in by Rosa Parks that carried a minimum bid of $1 million didn't sell. But Alex Haley's manuscript of "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," including a lost chapter called "The Negro" and handwritten notes by Malcolm X and Haley, was sold to New York's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture for an undisclosed price.

The appraised value of the King letter at the time was between $15,000 and $20,000.

"To be truthful, I expected it to sell for more than it did, but you don't know what is going to happen," Blakney said. "I am not losing sleep over it."

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