Rosa Parks during the 1950s. Her estate is the subject of a heated dispute in probate court.
Originally uploaded by Pan-African News Wire File Photos.
Estate fight treads fine line in mixing marketing, legacy
January 29, 2007
BY DAVID ASHENFELTER and SUZETTE HACKNEY
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITERS
The ongoing battle over Rosa Parks' estate set to play out in a Wayne County courtroom next month will have more to do with the marketing rights to her likeness and image than any money the civil rights icon left when she died.
Even if Parks' estate isn't worth the millions some have claimed, experts say, her name and image could be worth millions for decades to come.
"Maybe tens of millions," said Charles L. Sharp, a marketing professor at the University of Louisville, noting that former boxing great Muhammad Ali last year sold most of the rights to his name and likeness for $50 million to be used on such products as snack food.
Parks died in October 2005, leaving virtually all of her assets to the nonprofit Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, which she founded in 1987 with her longtime friend and caregiver, Elaine Steele. It encourages young people to reach their potential through education.
Steele, who has served as an officer of the institute, was granted power of attorney over Parks in 1998, the same year Parks' will was signed.
Since her death, Parks' likeness has appeared in national Chevrolet and Apple Computer ads. Not to mention the souvenirs and other memorabilia being sold around metro Detroit and over the Internet.
Parks' only family, 13 nieces and nephews, contested their aunt's will in November 2005, claiming that Steele bamboozled Parks, who suffered from dementia, into signing a will that cut them out of any decision-making about how Parks' likeness would be used and any profit from the licensing of her name and image.
The case goes to trial Feb. 19 before a six-member jury in Wayne County Probate Court.
Civil rights activists and others will closely watch the outcome because it could determine how the country ultimately remembers one of its greatest heroes of the struggle for racial equality.
"If this can happen to someone of her stature, then it can happen to anyone," said nephew William McCauley, 48, of Detroit, who serves as the family spokesman. "We just believe that our aunt was taken advantage of. ... The way her will read, she didn't care about her family, and that couldn't be farther from the truth."
Steele could not be reached for comment. But her lawyer, Anthony Paganelli of Indianapolis, denied that Steele ever took advantage of Parks.
Parks and Silverado commercial
Parks sparked the modern civil rights movement in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955, when she refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. She joins Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X among the few deceased African-American icons who command respect -- and potential profit.
Parks' nieces and nephews say her likeness and image in the wrong hands would be detrimental to her legacy.
In the past, Steele has said her goal always has been to protect Park's image and legacy.
Since the case began, Lawrence Pepper and Frederick Toca Jr. of Farmington Hills, lawyers for Parks' nieces and nephews, said Steele has refused to answer questions about the estate, repeatedly dodged depositions and failed to make a full accounting about the institute's activities.
Worse, they said, the institute contracted with CMG Worldwide of Indianapolis to market Parks' name. They said they learned of the deal when Parks' relatives saw a TV ad last fall for Chevy Silverado trucks featuring a famous photo of her on a Montgomery bus.
Paganelli confirmed the deal with CMG.
Wayne County Probate Judge Freddie Burton Jr. issued a temporary restraining order in October 2006 barring the institute from contracting with anyone to market Parks' name, likeness, image or other intellectual property. He also ordered the institute to turn the proceeds of any such arrangement over to the estate's court-appointed trustees.
McCauley said the ad detracted from Parks' legacy, calling it "another form of disrespect toward her family. This is what we're battling for."
The keeping of keepsakes
The day after Burton issued the restraining order, he directed a New York auction house to catalog all of Parks' belongings at the institute's offices and her riverfront condominium. He did so after learning one of Parks' prized possessions -- a Congressional Gold Medal -- had disappeared.
Steele later produced the medal, saying she found it on a shelf at Parks' home on Wildemere, which doubles as one of the institute's offices.
Parks family attorneys said many of her historic, irreplaceable and valuable articles -- honorary degrees, photos with presidents, documents and photos from the movement and the Presidential Medal of Freedom -- were in danger of being lost, stolen or damaged because of Steele's negligence.
In fact, officials from the auction house, Guernsey's, documented in a letter to lawyers that some photos and documents had been kept in deplorable condition and had water and mold damage.
"Thank goodness the court stepped in just in the nick of time," Toca said. "If not, a large part of Rosa Parks' history would have disappeared during the night."
Paganelli took exception to the comments by Parks' relatives and their lawyers.
"We disagree with those characterizations ... and are disappointed opposing counsel would make such statements about Mrs. Steele on the eve of trial," he said.
The lawyers won't divulge what Parks' estate is worth. But a document the Free Press obtained shows that in September 2006, the court-appointed trustees told Burton that there was $145,013 in a bank account and $227,611 in an escrow account from the settlement of her lawsuit resulting from the unauthorized use of her name by the hip-hop duo OutKast.
Probate court experts say battles like this one often come down to money.
"People fight for principle, but you have to ask them, if there was no money would they still invest in litigation," said Alan May, a Detroit probate lawyer. "If either side wins, I don't think they're going to decline their share of the money."
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