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King estate’s suit for documents dismissed

The owner of the documents said they were a gift from Martin Luther King Jr.

JACKSON, Miss. - A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit on Friday filed by the estate of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. seeking documents and other material connected to the civil rights leader from a Mississippi television anchor.

The lawsuit was filed in September in US District Court in Jackson against Howard Ballou, an anchor for Jackson-based WLBT-TV. The suit said Ballou’s mother worked for King as a secretary from 1955 to 1960 and kept documents during the time King led the Montgomery Improvement Association and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

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In dismissing the lawsuit, US District Judge Tom Lee said there was nothing to contradict Maude Ballou’s testimony that King gave her the material. Lee dismissed the lawsuit with prejudice, meaning it cannot be refiled. The King estate could appeal the ruling.

“Mrs. Ballou could not recall whether she was also given originals of some documents, but she made clear in her testimony that the documents she personally kept were those that Dr. King gave to her personally, to keep,’’ the judge wrote. “Plaintiff has offered no proof to contradict or undermine Mrs. Ballou’s testimony.’’

Jackson attorney Bob Owens said he was disappointed with the ruling and is “certain that the estate is going to appeal’’ to the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans.

The documents described in court records include a sermon, a statement King made the day after a landmark Supreme Court ruling on segregation, and a handwritten letter to Ballou’s mother from Rosa Parks.

Asked the value of the documents, the estate’s attorney said they have not been cataloged but are “invaluable to the estate.’’

Ballou argued in court papers that his parents were personal friends of King, and his father and King were fraternity brothers. He insisted that the letters, photographs, and other items were gifts and rightfully belong to his family.

The judge threw out the lawsuit after Ballou moved for a summary judgment, a legal ruling based on statements and evidence submitted to the court without a trial. In this case, Ballou’s lawyer had argued that the facts are simple and that the material belongs to his family. The judge agreed.

King’s estate wanted the motion to be denied or continued until the parties conduct discovery.

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