Faced with a growing number of offers to produce books and films about the bus boycott, King hired the New York literary agency of Marie Rodell and Joan Daves, Inc. to assist in negotiating contracts.1 In this letter Daves reports settling a contract with Harper & Brothers for the manuscript of what would be King’s first book, Stride Toward Freedom. With his 24 October reply King enclosed a copy of a contract from a producer interested in making a movie about his life and asked that Daves begin “negotiating on this matter immediately.” 2
Dr. Martin Luther King
309 South Jackson Street
Dear Dr. King:
May I reiterate how pleased we are to have been designated your agents. Mrs. Rodell and I are looking forward to a long and fruitful association with you.
The details of your agreement with Harper have been settled satisfactorily and we shall be sending you the contracts within a few days. As we pointed out to you, the matter of your involvement in a motion picture production is connected with the forthcoming book. A book of this kind has a certain value as a basis for a motion picture and therefore any projected film should be considered in connection with the literary property. We noted in last Sunday’s New York Times that the people with whom some discussion relating to a motion picture has taken place, have represented that the film is to be based on the life of Martin Luther King.3 Thus, it would appear that they contemplate the use of material in your book and possibly personal consulting services on your part, without which no authentic script could be prepared.
We have given considerable thought to the matter of avoiding possible conflicts of interest and the hopeless tangle which would result unless the areas of representation and jurisdiction are clearly defined. In our judgment the following is the most practical method of handling the situation: we suggest that the Montgomery Improvement Association, through its attorneys, pursue its negotiations with the producers for all matters relating to the Association and any of the individuals who might be portrayed in the film and from whom the producers would seek the usual releases, with the exception of yourself. We further suggest that we as your agents negotiate with the producers for a contract involving your various interests which include the bookrights. We believe that this method will avoid unnecessary complications and misunderstandings so that the producers, the Montgomery Improvement Association and yourself will each be completely clear on where they stand.4 This should facilitate the conclusion of favorable agreements for all the parties involved.
Since we understand the Mr. Hayden is located in New York, it will be an easy matter for us to be in contact with him in the discussions on your behalf.
With all good wishes,
1. See for example, Henry Robbins to King, 20 February 1957; John Peck to King, 23 May 1957; and Lester C. Romas to King, 14 June 1957. Joan Daves (1919-1997), born Liselotte Davidson in Berlin, escaped Nazi Germany by fleeing to Paris and England before emigrating to the United States in 1940. During her career as a literary agent she represented six Nobel Laureates and continued to handle King’s literary property until her death. Marie F. Rodell (1912-1975), born in New York City, received her B.A. (1932) from Vassar College. Before launching her literary agency with Daves in 1948, she headed the mystery department and was an associate editor at Duell, Sloan and Pearce.
2. On 20 February 1957, Los Angeles-based director Jeffrey Hayden wrote to King about the possibility of making a film based on the Montgomery bus boycott. After nearly a year of discussions with several studios, the project was shelved in April 1958 (see Rodell to King, 14 April 1958).
3. Thomas M. Pryor, ‘‘Hollywood Views: Mirisch Brothers Start Filming First of Twelve Features—Other Matters,” New York Times, 13 October 1957.
4. In a 15 November letter to King, Rodell said she had been “surprised and disturbed” to learn that MIA attorney Fred Gray continued to negotiate for King: “This can only lead to confusion and possibly worse; the whole deal can get hopelessly bollaxed up.” She urged King to direct the film company to negotiate only with her agency and to ask Gray to discontinue his negotiations. Replying for King on 19 November, Maude Ballou told Rodell that King had complied with her requests.
MLKP, MBU, Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers, 1954-1968, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University, Boston, Mass.