The opinion of the court was delivered by: Haight, District Judge:
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
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.
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 ...