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October 1, 1990


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Haight, District Judge:


This is an action for libel. It arises out of the autobiography of defendant Ralph Abernathy, published by defendant Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. and edited by defendant Daniel Bial. Plaintiff is a resident of Memphis, Tennessee, who claims to have been defamed by a passage in the book. Defendants move to dismiss her complaint under Rule 12(b)(6), F.R.Civ.P., on the ground that as a matter of law, the alleged defamatory words are not "of and concerning" plaintiff.


The late Rev. Ralph Abernathy was for many years a close associate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Abernathy wrote an autobiography entitled "And the Walls Came Tumbling Down." The book was edited by defendant Bial and published by defendant Harper and Row in 1989. After plaintiff instituted this action, Abernathy died. The other defendants filed a suggestion of death on the record pursuant to Rule 25(a), and plaintiff has moved to substitute Abernathy's estate as party defendant under Rule 25(a)(1). I grant that motion herewith.

Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis in April, 1968. Plaintiff claims she was defamed by the following passage from Abernathy's book, which describes events occurring on the night before Dr. King's assassination:

  A "friend" of Martin's invited us to have steaks at
  her house, three of us — Martin Bernard Lee, and
  me. When we got there, we found three ladies waiting.
  Martin's friend had provided dinner partners for
  Bernard and me, and we had a very heavy meal along
  with some light conversation.
  I was exhausted at that stage of the evening, and
  since I was a happily married man, I was not
  particularly interested in developing a closer
  relationship with my companion. Nor was Bernard Lee,
  as best I recall. I remember trying to keep up my part
  of the conversation during the meal and then, when the
  women went back into the kitchen, beating Bernard to
  an easy chair with an ottoman and falling fast
  asleep. When I awoke, I saw an empty living room,
  except for Bernard stretched out on the sofa.
  Shortly, thereafter, Martin and his friend came out of
  the bedroom. The other women had long since left. It
  was after 1:00 a.m.
  We drove back through the rain, which hadn't slackened
  all evening, Solomon Jones leaning forward,
  occasionally wiping off the windshield, which was
  clouding up on the inside. We didn't talk and by the
  time we drove back to the motel parking lot, I had
  long since fallen asleep again, a gift I have always
  had that has enabled me to keep going for days at a
  time, without losing much needed energy. Martin on the
  other hand, never took catnaps and never ran out of
  gas. When we arrived at the motel, the level of his
  energy would again be tested . . .

Plaintiff alleges that she is the person referred to in this passage as a "`friend' of Martin's" and the hostess of the gathering described in the passage. She claims that she has been defamed by the false impression conveyed by the passage that she "had engaged in adulterous behavior and sexual relations with Dr. Martin Luther King on the last night of his life." Complaint, ¶ 8.

Plaintiff alleges that she has been a human rights activist for many years, including civil rights activities in Memphis in 1968. She currently teaches and lectures in Memphis to Afro-American children about their heritage. She works as a beautician and barber. Id., ¶ 3.

Abernathy's book nowhere refers to plaintiff by name. Nor is Dr. King's "friend and hostess" identified in the book by name, physical description, residence, or occupation.

In these circumstances, defendants contend: "There is no way a reasonable reader of the Book could believe that Ms. Naantaanbuu (or any other specific individual) was the person described as hosting the dinner party for Dr. King some 22 years ago." Affidavit of counsel in support of motion at ¶ 5.

Plaintiff has submitted an affidavit in opposition to defendants' motion. She avers that she has been active in the civil rights movement, with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other grassroots movements, for more than 30 years. On April 3, 1968 she was selected, among other volunteers, to pick up Dr. King and his entourage, who were coming to Memphis for a rally planned for that evening and the next day. On the evening of April 3, 1968, plaintiff prepared at her home an evening meal for Dr. King and ...

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