March 13, 2015 / 1:05 AM / 2 years ago

LBJ letter to Martin Luther King Jr.'s widow sells for $60,000

Martin Luther King Jr. memorabilia are shown in this image courtesy of Quinn's Auction Galleries in Falls Church, Virginia, and released to Reuters on March 4, 2015.Quinn's Auction House/Handout via Reuters

FALLS CHURCH, Va. (Reuters) - A condolence letter from President Lyndon Johnson to the widow of slain civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was sold for $60,000 at auction on Thursday after a legal battle over the 47-year-old piece of correspondence.

The typed letter from Johnson to Coretta Scott King is dated April 5, 1968, the day after King was gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee, by a white supremacist, triggering riots in cities across the United States.

"We will overcome this calamity and continue the work of justice and love that is Martin Luther King’s legacy and trust to us," Johnson, who had succeeded to the presidency after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, said in the letter on White House stationery.

Johnson won election to his own four-year term in 1964 but chose not to run again in 1968 after Kennedy's younger brother, Robert F. Kennedy, then a U.S. senator from New York, entered the race for the Democratic nomination. RFK was himself assassinated in Los Angeles two months after King was slain.

Quinn's Auction Galleries in Falls Church, Virginia, set a minimum price at $60,000, the sum an online bidder ultimately paid for it, though the item had been expected to fetch at least twice that amount, according to the company's website.

Auctioneer Matthew Quinn said the letter had special resonance given the 50th anniversary this month of the "Bloody Sunday" protest march at Selma, Alabama, a turning point in the U.S. civil rights movement, and the release of the King-centered movie, "Selma."

A letter from President Lyndon Johnson to the widow of Martin Luther King Jr. after his shooting, is shown in this image courtesy of Quinn's Auction Galleries in Falls Church, Virginia, and released to Reuters on March 4, 2015.Quinn's Auction Galleries /Handout via Reuters

Coretta Scott King held on to the letter until 2003, then gave it to singer and social activist Harry Belafonte. She died in 2006.

When Belafonte tried to auction it off in 2008, King's children objected, and the sale was canceled. The two sides became embroiled in a legal battle.

A 2014 settlement allowed Belafonte to keep the letter and Belafonte gave it to his half-sister, Shirley Cooks. She and her husband, Stoney Cooks, a staff member of King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference, put it up for sale with other memorabilia.

Stoney Cooks said the letter was remarkable because Johnson, who had signed landmark civil rights legislation into law, wrote it while grappling with the unrest unleashed by King's murder.

"I thought that quick response showed something about the nature of the relationship between the two men," Cooks said.

Sixteen MLK items in all sold for a total of $99,668.

Additional reporting by Ian Simpson and by Vanessa Johnston for Reuters Television in Washington; Editing by Peter Cooney and Eric Walsh

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