Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Butterfields auction house cancelled its March 20 public sale of Malcolm Xs papers not because of a threatened lawsuit, a court injunction, fear of black wrath, or 11th hour qualms about offending Malcolm Xs family who opposed the sale. According to a spokesperson I talked to at Butterfields San Francisco office, where the auction had originally been scheduled, the auction house stopped the sale solely on legal and technical grounds. The storage company that owns the Florida locker where Malcolms papers were held filed a lawsuit seeking payment for unpaid storage fees.
Butterfields has also been asked to disclose how the documents wound up in the storage unit, and whether the anonymous seller has clear title to the papers. Butterfields will retain possession of the materials until these issues are resolved. It also stands by its contention that the seller has clear title to the papers. This still leaves open the possibility that the papers will be sold at a later date. If that happens, they can be parceled off piecemeal to private parties. Butterfields originally planned to sell the documents in 21 separate lots. Private buyers could then legally dispose of the materials any way they chose. They could permanently lock them away, or even more horrifying, destroy them. That would prevent scholars, and activists from understanding how the thoughts and actions of Malcolm X helped define and shape the 1960s black movement. It would also prevent Americans from drawing inspiration from his battle for racial justice The temporary halt to the auction is a momentary victory for opponents of the sale and Malcolm Xs family. But it does not resolve the tormenting issue of what should be done to prevent auction houses, and profit-mad private sellers from making a quick buck off the treasured historical legacy of African-Americans? This is an issue that almost certainly can and will crop up again with Malcolm as well as other pivotal African-American figures, such as W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, Paul Robeson, Fannie Lou Hamer, Adam Clayton Powell, Barbara Jordan, and dozens of others who had a profound impact on the civil rights and social change movements of the past century.
In fact, the same week that Butterfields took heat over the Malcolm X papers, Ebay, the on-line auction house, listed thirteen vintage books, pictures, and other memorabilia, of, by, and about Malcolm X for sale. There are several things that Butterfields, and other auction houses, and private sellers can do to avoid future publicly embarrassing legal entanglements and public rage over the sale of valued African-American historical documents.
Before putting them up to public bid, they should notify family members that the documents are available for sale, and give them the first bid rights. If family members are unable, or uninterested, in purchasing the documents, the sellers should guarantee a first right of buy t o African-American historical societies, or public institutions, university research centers, museums, and libraries. The Schomburg Center for Black Culture and Columbia University has expressed interest in acquiring the Malcolm documents. They are located in or near Harlem, his famed home base, and would be logical places for them to be displayed. Auction houses should also give potential bidders the option to bid on an entire collection. But what happens if auction houses and private sellers fail to attract interest from family members or a research institution in valued private papers? Then African-American interest groups must step forward. And money, or the lack thereof, cant be used as an excuse for not purchasing the documents. The minimum starting bid for the Malcolm X manuscripts with annotation were $2000. For the Malcolm X snapshot photo archive the minimum bid was $1500.
The sale of the items could have brought in as much as $500,000. Even if the entire set went at top price, this is a ludicrous drop in the bucket for Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Bill Cosby, Michael Jackson, or Tiger Woods.
It is a pittance for the thousands of black athletes and entertainers that bag colossal incomes and contracts. They have the wealth and income to pay for dozens of collections. And they are only the most visible and conspicuous tip of the iceberg of black wealth. Nearly half of all blacks now earn incomes above $25,000. And there are thousands of businesspersons and professionals who earn incomes far above that. The same way that money should not be an issue with priceless collections such as the Malcolm X papers, it should not be an issue with the proposed Martin Luther King Monument in Washington D.C. Congress approved it in 1999. The monument will cost at least $10 million. But Congress did not allocate one penny for its construction. The funds must be raised exclusively by private contributions.
There is absolutely no reason well-heeled African-Americans should hesitate to cough up the money to preserve the memory of Malcolm X and King. They are their historical gems. If they dont act, their rage and anguish should not be directed at Butterfields, but at themselves. Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion website: www.thehutchinsonreport.com He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).