By Christy Strawser
CBS Detroit Managing Editor
DETROIT (1270 Talk Radio) Civil rights hero Rosa Parks’ personal papers, photographs and other mementoes are locked in a court battle with no end in sight.
The attorney battling on behalf of the institute Parks founded before her 2005 death sued the judge on the case this week — and the attorneys the judge appointed as trustees — saying they’re corrupt. Attorney Steven Cohen claims the judge and attorneys are intentionally draining the estate of all its cash through legal fees to force the sale of Parks’ potentially valuable personal effects to pay the debt they created.
“Right now the estate’s a mess,” Cohen said on the Charlie Langton Talk Radio 1270 morning show.
At the heart of the issue are Parks’ heirs — nieces and nephews — who want her personal effects sold and the money invested back in the estate, and to paying off debts including legal fees. On the other side is the charitable institute Parks founded.
The institute’s leader Eileen Steel, appointed by Parks, wants the effects to go to the institute, which is dedicated to civil rights education.
“These artifacts have been locked up in NYC for about five or six years now, and the institute and the family have absolutely no control over it and the judge has the control, which he should not have,” Cohen said. “This matter should not be under the control of (Wayne Probate Court Judge Freddie Burton.) He should be removed from the case, frankly, he should be removed from the bench for his corrupt actions.”
After Cohen filed suit against the judge overseeing the case — forcing the judge to tackle a case against himself in his own courtroom — the judge issued an order of harassment against Cohen. Burton claimed Cohen was creating “unfounded, illegal pleadings.”
“I took the rare step of suing a judge in his own courtroom because he simply would not give up his corrupt ways,” Cohen said.
Farmington Hills attorney Larry Pepper, who represents Parks’ nieces and nephews but is not involved in Cohen’s actions against the judge and trustees, said his clients just want to move forward.
“Their overriding concern, although some people don’t believe this, but it’s true, their concern is the legacy of Rosa Parks and they are very fearful that legacy is going to be tarnished, either through disreputable use of her name or image,” Pepper said.
Through an agreement reached between the institute and Parks’ heirs in 2007, the nieces and nephews have the right to 20 percent of the proceeds from anything earned by or sold through her estate.
Pepper said he trusts the two attorneys appointed by the judge, John Chase Jr. and Melvin Jefferson Jr., to oversee Parks’ artifacts.
“I’ve known both of these gentlemen for close to the 37 years, I would trust them with my personal matters,” Pepper said. “I have nothing but positive things to say about both of them … It really is infuriating that Cohen would make these charges.”
He adds that Parks’ things need to be sold: “It’s my position that the estate needs funds … These things should be sold and the proceeds divided,” Pepper said.
The artifacts are housed right now at Guernsey’s auction house in New York.
But Cohen believes the artifacts should just be sent to the Rosa Parks Institute. Some estimates say the memorabilia could be worth $8 million.
“No one knows how much it’s worth … But there are valuable papers and photographs and artifacts and all of those things were given by Mrs. Parks to her institute long before she died,” Cohen said. “The institute used these artifacts in its civil rights work and educational mission.”
Parks had perhaps $100,000 when she died, Cohen said. After she died, proceeds came in from a lawsuit against Outkast, which brought it another $200,000. “All told her estate had about $390,000,” Cohen said, adding, “She gave all of that to her charitable institute … She wanted her institute to carry on her work.”
The problem? “Most of the liquid assets, or all of the liquid assets, of the estate are gone, they’ve gone in attorney
fees to Chase and Jefferson, and the artifacts are still controlled by Chase and Jefferson and Burton … They do retain possession and control of the artifacts,” Cohen said.
He added: “This is something that happens all the time in Wayne County Probate Court, basically the system tends to rape and pillage the estates of deceased persons for their own selfish uses and the families and beneficiaries end up with a very small amount of what was intended for them. It happens all the time.”