JACKSON, Miss (AP) – A Mississippi television anchorman can keep documents and other materials tied to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., that the civil rights leader's estate sued to obtain, a federal appeals court panel ruled Friday.
King's estate sued WLBT-TV's Howard Ballou in September 2011 in U.S. District Court in Jackson. The estate wanted possession of documents, photographs and other items that Ballou's mother got while working for King.
Maude Ballou worked as King's secretary from 1955 to 1960 and kept documents during the time King led the Montgomery Improvement Association and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the lawsuit said.
Maude Ballou said King gave her the material.
U.S. District Judge Tom Lee dismissed the estate's lawsuit on March 23, saying there was nothing to contradict Maude Ballou's testimony that King gave her the material and that the statute of limitations had passed.
A three-judge panel from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans upheld the decision Friday based on the statute of limitations ruling.
The panel said the clock started when Maude Ballou left King's employment in 1960, not when the estate asked Howard Ballou for the material in 2010. The estate said it didn't know about the material until a newspaper wrote about that year.
"Thank God justice prevailed,'' Howard Ballou said Friday in a telephone interview. "I'm just happy for my mother.''
King's estate, a Georgia corporation operated as a private company by his children, is known to fight for control of the King brand and has sued media companies that used his "I Have a Dream'' speech.
One of the estate's attorneys did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday. It wasn't immediately clear if the estate planned to ask for a rehearing or appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
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 civil rights icon Rosa Parks.
After working for King, Ballou's parents went to work at what is now Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina, where Leonard Ballou was as an archivist. Leonard Ballou apparently stored the material in the university's basement, unbeknownst to anyone, until it was discovered by the university in 2007 and returned to the Ballou family.
The court record says the university contacted Howard Ballou about taking possession of the material because his father was deceased. His mother is alive.
Ballou's lawyer, Robert Gibbs, said Ballou's parents were personal friends of King and the letters, photographs and other items were gifts that rightfully belong to Ballou's family.
Gibbs said Friday that the 5th Circuit ruling clears up any issue of ownership, but he's prepared to fight if the King estate appeals the ruling.
The 5th Circuit panel "decided the statute of limitations issue, which does clear up the ownership issue, because the ownership claims they were making should have been made a long time ago,'' Gibbs said.
*Pictured above is Howard Ballou.