This month’s significance will be indelibly etched in American history with Barack Obama’s inauguration on January 20 as the nation’s first African-American president. And only the day before, we observe Martin Luther King’s birthday.
It’s an extraordinary moment that stamps an exclamation point on hundreds of years of shameful history. Slavery. Jim Crow laws that segregated buses, restaurants and restrooms. Separate-but-not-equal schools. Restricted civil rights and liberties. All of which served to make blacks second-class citizens.
It took decades upon decades of sacrifice and sit-ins, lawsuits and lynchings before President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And one man who championed the movement and gave his life to it was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Collectibles and memorabilia shed light on an era
Collecting artifacts and memorabilia from the Civil Rights era helps preserve and contextualize both the facts and the emotions of this complicated time. Few commercial dealers have tackled the topic like Syl Turner, owner of the Broad Street Antique Mall in Chamblee, Ga.
For two decades, Turner has maintained one of the nation’s largest commercial inventories of Black Americana collectibles. Online, Turner also operates the BlackHistoryStore.com and offers items on GoAntiques.
He has several King-related historical items on GoAntiques in the weeks leading up to the MLK holiday.
Interest in Black Americana grows
Turner said interest in King collectibles spikes around the holiday. But King collectibles—and Black Americana generally—have been steadily growing in importance and price. The holiday and the Obama inauguration draw extra attention to what’s available, but it’s a category that has transcended any particular event, he said.
“I see a little spike in activity around the King birthday, but that’s about it,” Turner said. “The additional interest actually continues through February because that’s Black History Month.”
The slain civil-rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate was born Jan. 15, 1929, but a national holiday and day of service honoring him is on the third Monday in January. It was observed for the first time on Jan. 20, 1986. Speaking of the importance of service, Dr. King said, “If you want to be important— wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But, recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness.”
King collectibles are difficult to come by even though he was a prolific writer, Turner said, because his widow, Coretta Scott King, and others “exerted direct control” over most of his documents.
Most King documents in institutions
More than two years after Mrs. King’s death, most of the large collections of King documents and personal effects are in institutional collections.
In 2006, Morehouse College—King’s alma mater—acquired 10,000 items from the King family for an undisclosed sum raised with the help of a private coalition of business and civic leaders. Sotheby’s, which had announced an auction date for the collection, estimated it would command up to $30 million.
The collection includes items ranging from canceled checks, to a term paper King wrote as a student at Morehouse, to a draft of his most famous speech, “I Have a Dream,” delivered at the 1963 March on Washington.
Anti-Vietnam speech outline withdrawn from auction
In December 2008, the King Center in Atlanta prevailed upon Sotheby’s to withdraw from auction three important King documents that singer Harry Belafonte sought to sell. Valued up to $1.3 million, they included an outline of King’s first speech opposing the Vietnam War and notes found in his pocket following his assassination.
“There’s not much out there for the average collector,” Turner said. “A handwritten letter is very difficult to find because most are in the hands of institutions.”
More commonly available are collectibles related to significant events in King’s life and items related to his family. Recently, Turner sold a 12-page program of installation services of King as Pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., on Oct. 31, 1954. The church was the headquarters of the Montgomery bus boycott that propelled King into the national spotlight. The program was in excellent condition and commanded $3,500.
Turner has acquired several other examples of King-related items, often from parishioners at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta where King was co-pastor with his father.
For example, Turner is offering a rare eight-page Ebenezer Baptist Church bulletin dated June 30, 1974. During that service, King’s mother, Mrs. Alberta King, was shot and killed at the organ console by a deranged gunman as worshippers recited the Lord’s Prayer. Her husband, Martin Luther King Sr., was the pastor. The program has handwritten eyewitness notes of the murder, including the comment, “Worship began on Earth; completed in Heaven.”
Ebenezer Baptist Church program
Another collectible related to King’s parents is a 1984 funeral program for Martin Luther King Sr. listed in near-mint condition. “It was in a lady’s Bible and looks like it came right off the press,” Turner said.
MLK Sr.'s funeral program
One of the larger collectibles is a limited-edition poster commemorating King’s life by artist Edie B. Eisenberg. The 40-by-30-inch poster is designed as an American flag and features famous King quotes. It is listed in excellent condition. “I don’t think it was ever circulated,”
Memorial flag poster
Also rare and unusual is a 20-page program for the Coretta Scott King Freedom Concert Program on May 23, 1965. The concert was presented by the Philadelphia Beauticians’ Association at the First African Baptist Church in Philadelphia.
Freedom concert program
Turner isn’t the only GoAntiques dealer with MLK collectibles available this month.
Alan Radwill of Guaranteed Autographs is offering an autographed copy of Dr. King’s 1964 book, “Why We Can’t Wait.” He used a fountain pen with blue ink to sign the title page.
"Why We Can't Wait"
Antique Goodies of New Zealand has a Martin Luther King, Negro Funeral Home advertising fan. Advertising fans were often distributed at funerals as a way to stave off the heat.
Lake Murray Treasures has a gold-tone, filigree-metal double picture frame. On one side is a photo of Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King, on the other Robert Kennedy. Between them is an electric clock.
If you are interested in viewing Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, click here for a 17-minute video that includes it, or click here for a video with only the speech.
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