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Martin Luther King and I : Controversy: Saying a new book implies a liaison, the woman who served the civil rights leader his last dinner, files suit to clear her name.

February 19, 1990|LEE MAY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Adjua Abi Naantaanbuu, a graceful woman with languid eyes and pointed wit, sipped tea and talked about that day more than 20 years ago, the day the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. died. It was 1968 and he had had dinner at her house the night before. Those events changed her life.

"I knew something was wrong" in America if a man as revered as King could be murdered for his color and his nonviolent beliefs, she told a visitor to her home in a quiet Memphis neighborhood, the same one in which she was host to King.

Naantaanbuu, who in 1968 was Tarlease Mathews, began "embracing the African culture and being proud of who I am." Now, she says, the only "European clothes" she owns are jogging outfits. All the rest are African, like the long, loose purple and white dress, with matching gele that she wore on a recent day.

She produces an annual African-American cultural festival in Memphis. At 53, she has carved out her niche in this city.

But another incident connected to King has come along, again altering her life dramatically.

The Rev. Ralph Abernathy, in his recently published book, "And the Walls Came Tumbling Down," described that last dinner at Naantaanbuu's house, and, without naming her, called her "a 'friend' of" King.

She "had provided dinner partners" for King and another activist, Bernard Lee, that night, Abernathy wrote. And, he wrote that, sometime after dinner, "Martin and his friend came out of the bedroom."

The implication was clear--that King was an adulterer on his last night alive, with his closest aide a near witness.

That account, published in October, infuriated black people generally, but in Naantaanbuu's view, it amounted to libel. She has sued Abernathy, his publisher, Harper & Row, and the book's editor, Daniel Bial, seeking a total of $10 million--$5 million from Abernathy, $2.5 million each from the publisher and editor. And she wants a stop-publish order on any books containing what her 10-page complaint calls "the defamatory material."

Abernathy did not return repeated telephone calls, but in past interviews he has stood by his account.

In a statement released Friday, Harper & Row officials said that the company "has complete confidence in this book and in the integrity and veracity of its author. We believe the lawsuit is without merit, and we will defend it aggressively."

Abernathy's account is "a lie," Naantaanbuu said, holding a well-worn copy of the book, asserting that Abernathy makes her out to be "a madam."

In more than three hours of conversation, Naantaanbuu gave her own account of King's last night alive, including his comments about the likelihood he would be murdered and his threat to leave the civil rights movement. She compared her feelings about King and Malcolm X, whose philosophy she finds more appealing.

Naantaanbuu and her attorney reject the notion that the lawsuit, filed in New York earlier this month, weakens the civil rights movement, and Naantaanbuu asserts that her own faith in "the movement" remains unshaken.

Nevertheless, Naantaanbuu said that Abernathy's book has taken a terrible toll on her. Stress has caused her to gain 30 pounds, she said. Strangers stop and stare. And the talk tears her apart. "I have a friend who said that a lady told her: 'She's no different from Jessica Hahn,' " (the one-time church secretary with whom the Rev. Jim Bakker had a sexual encounter before his television evangelical empire crumbled).

"It's so depressing to have to deal with something like this," she said. "My reputation is on the line. I walk out in the street, and people look at me and you can see all eyes going (here, she rolls her eyes). They're saying, 'That's the woman that Abernathy said was coming out of the bedroom.' Well, think what they read into that--coming out of the bedroom, you know? It's a very ugly, nasty thing."

In many ways, Naantaanbuu's story illustrates how any person can go from obscurity to notoriety in the stroke of a computer key.

Naantaanbuu was asleep one night last October when the first friend telephoned her to tell her that she had joined the notorious.

"I've got something important to tell you," the friend said, citing news reports. "Abernathy has written a book. And . . . he talked about them being at your home and seeing you and Dr. King coming out of your bedroom."

Naantaanbuu recalls responding, "Oh, you gotta be kidding."

She said: "I just couldn't imagine Abernathy having something like that printed when it wasn't true."

Naantaanbuu and Abernathy agree on much of what happened on the night of April 3. Their major differences center on two paragraphs on Page 434 of the book, rapidly becoming known as the "$10-million paragraphs."

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