Estate of Rosa Parks plundered, claims lawsuit

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The estate of civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks is facing bankruptcy, with historically important items of memorabilia at risk, papers filed in a Michigan court allege.

Ms Parks became the first lady of civil rights in 1955 when she defied segregation laws by refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, to a white man. She was arrested and the resulting outcry prompted a boycott of Montgomery's buses.

Ms Parks died in 2005 aged 92, after instructing that her estate should fund an institute in her name which would teach young people leadership and character development. But her legacy has become mired in a long-running legal dispute.

A court filing by Steven Cohen, who represents the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, claims a judge allowed two other lawyers to pile up fees that drained about two-thirds of the estate's $372,000 (£228,000) value.

"Since Mrs Parks's death, the court system of her adopted city (Detroit) has embarked on a course to destroy her legacy, bankrupt her institute, shred her estate plan and steal her very name," Mr Cohen alleged.

With the money running out, Mr Cohen claimed lawyers John Chase Jr and Melvin Jefferson Jr persuaded a judge to order the Parks Institute to forfeit her vast memorabilia collection so it could be auctioned. Mr Cohen wants that decision overturned, along with a judge's decision to grant the lawyers – whose actions are backed by Parks's nieces and nephews -- the rights to license the Rosa Parks name.

The memorabilia collection, which includes medals, papers and the hat she wore on the historic ride, is now in the hands of a New York auction house. With the ownership of the collection valued at $10 m (£6m) in limbo, vital items are being lost, Mr Cohen argued.

The coat that Ms Parks wore on the bus ride, seen worldwide in photographs and one of the most valuable items in the collection, is missing. But Lawrence Pepper, a lawyer representing the Parks' nieces and nephews, said the coat had been lost long ago.

Ms Parks had given it to one of her nieces when she was attending college about 40 years ago. Her niece wore it and got rid of it. "She didn't realise it had any value," Mr Pepper said.

The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, reportedly bid $1.2m (£735,000) for the memorabilia collection. The relatives who challenged Ms Parks will want to give the Institute's share of the proceeds to charity and share the rest among themselves.

Ms Parks, who had no children, was a 42-year-old secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People when she made her stand. She received many honours, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The Parks estate included $227,000 (£139,000) which Rosa won in 1999 after suing hip-hop band OutKast for using her name in a song without permission.