It was written a day after an assassination that rocked America and was intended to condole not only a grieving widow but a stunned nation.
"Since early morning, I have devoted all my hours and energy to honouring your good husband in the manner he would most approve,” President Lyndon Johnson wrote to Corretta Scott King, the widow of the celebrated civil rights leader.
He added: “I have sought, by word, deed, and official act, to unite this sorrowing and troubled nation against further and wider violence.”
Mr Johnson wrote the letter on April 5 1968, the day after Mr King was shot and killed in Memphis. James Earl Ray pleaded guilty to the shooting and was jailed for 99 years, though he subsequently withdraw the confession.
Now, almost 50 years after the letter was penned, the document is to be put up for auction after the conclusion of a long and bitter legal battle involving Martin Luther King’s children and the singer and activist Harry Belafonte.
Mrs King’s widow kept the letter until 2003 when she gave it to Mr Belafonte, who had once been a close friend of her late husband. Following her death in 2006, Mr Belafonte sought to sell the letter but the move was opposed by Mr and Mrs King’s three children, the Washington Post reported.
The children claimed the letter was taken without permission, prompting Sotheby’s to back away from a proposed auction. In turn, Mr Belafonte sued the King estate. They reached a settlement last spring, allowing the singer to keep the document, the newspaper said.
The letter has been put up for auction by Shirley and Stoney Cooks - Mr Belafonte’s half sister and brother-in-law. Mr Belafonte, 87, gave the letter to the two former civil rights activists who worked with Mr King last year.
Mrs Cooks told the newspaper they had decided to sell the letter because of the attention to Mr King’s struggle that has been generated by the film Selma, which has been nominated for several Oscars.
The film portrays an often fractious relationship between President Johnson and Mr King, something that some critics of the movie have claimed was not accurate.
The letter is to be auctioned on March 5 by Quinn’s Auction Galleries, located in Falls Church, Virginia. The auction house's Matthew Quinn told The Independent he believed the correspondence he had seen from Mr Johnson to the family of Mr King suggested there was a personal relationship.
"It's absolutely a piece of history," he said of the letter. "I'm honoured to hold it in my hands, never mind sell it."
It is estimated the letter will fetch up to $180,000 when it comes under the hammer.
“I wanted you to know tonight of the determination that binds us,” Mr Johnson wrote to Mrs King. “We will overcome this calamity and continue the work of justice and love that is Martin Luther King’s legacy and trust to us."Reuse content