By Fiona Ortiz
CHICAGO, Jan 27 (Reuters) - A climate-controlled archive in Chicago holds 5 million images of what could be called the African American experience since 1942, including exceptional, intimate photographs of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., singer Billie Holiday and boxer Muhammad Ali.
Now Johnson Publishing, parent company of struggling Ebony and Jet magazines, is seeking a buyer for the archive, which it estimates is worth more than $40 million.
"Nothing exists like it. It's almost like an African American Getty," Johnson Publishing Chief Executive Desiree Rogers told Reuters, referring to the renowned Getty Images photojournalism archive.
"We are still the curators of the African American experience. That's the mantle the editors wear," she said.
Among archival experts who are advising Johnson in its search for a buyer is Mark Lubell, executive director of the International Center of Photography in New York.
Rogers would not comment on potential buyers or whether commercial or historical archives had expressed interest.
The company spent 18 months organizing the images but has digitized only about 6,000 of the millions of photographs and videos, said Rogers, President Barack Obama's former White House social secretary. Johnson Publishing makes little money off the rights to the images, she said.
Facing declining readership and ad revenue, like much of the magazine industry, Jet magazine went digital-only last year. Ebony's print and digital versions both went through expensive redesigns in recent years.
The archive includes the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo by Moneta Sleet, Jr., of Coretta Scott King with her daughter Bernice on her lap, at the funeral of her husband, Martin Luther King, Jr. Sleet in 1969 became the first African-American man to win a Pulitzer prize.
Over many years working for Ebony, Sleet photographed King and his family and covered the civil rights movement as well as black leaders and politicians such as Adam Clayton Powell, entertainers such as Stevie Wonder and sports greats.
The collection also includes many images of black business owners and professionals. (Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Will Dunham)