A striking Atlanta sanitation worker kneels at the grave of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. after a rally by Southern Christian Leadership Conference supporting the strike in Atlanta on April 4, 1970. King was killed in Memphis, Tenn., two years earlier while supporting a sanitation workers’ strike there. The picket signs reading “I Am A Man” were first used in the Memphis strike. (AP Photo/BJ)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Draft of famous MLK letter to be sold

A draft of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” — one of the most famous writings from the civil rights era — is set to be auctioned on Thursday in New York, with an estimated value of $10,000 to $15,000.

The document is among more than 500 items up for auction at the Printed & Manuscript African Americana sale on Thursday at the Swann Auction Galleries. The 1963 letter is among King’s most famous writings, and there are at least five other known drafts in existence. The year he wrote the letter it was published in newspapers and magazines, and it has been widely anthologized ever since.

Some other noteworthy items at this year’s sale of African Americana are a rare photo of Harriet Tubman, a manuscript by Malcolm X and a collection of papers by the group that helped organize the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott.

The King letter is being offered by former Atlanta antiques collector James Allen, best known for his collection of lynching photos gathered from across the South.

Allen said he acquired the draft version of the King letter three decades ago, after discovering it during an estate sale that included the papers of a former African-American minister in Alabama.

“I thought this just can’t be,” Allen said.

Allen has been collecting items linked to African American history for decades. He has the largest collection at the auction, with some 75 items up for sale.

Some of the most interesting items in his collection were gathered over decades as the antiques picker travelled the South. In addition to the King letter, he is selling a 1970 “I am a Man” placard worn by striking Atlanta sanitation workers, a circa 1895 portrait of Frederick Douglass that once adorned a wall of a black school house in Ben Hill County, Georgia and a collection from the infamous Scottsboro Boys civil rights case in the 1930s.

Allen ran into financial trouble in recent years and says he is selling items from his collection because he needs money.

His lynching photographs made national news when he published them in a book in 2000 and exhibited them in various galleries and locations across the country. In 2005, the U.S. Senate issued an apology for failing to enact federal anti-lynching legislation and sponsors of the resolution credited Allen’s work as raising awareness about this legacy of racial violence.

Read more about sale of the letter and other items at myAJC.com.

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