King-papers battle is about who will guard a legacy Jury is deciding fate of documents

May 06, 1993|By Boston Globe

ATLANTA -- For Jerrold Gales, beside the reflecting pool of the Martin Luther King memorial here, Boston University's fight to keep a collection of King's papers isn't a matter of legal arguments. It has more to do with the lump he feels in his throat as he looks at the civil-rights leader's Georgia crypt.

"This is just an extraordinary place," Mr. Gales said on a visit from Fort Worth, Texas. "Those papers belong here, where everything else is. For me, it shouldn't even be a question."

That view is felt powerfully by many Atlantans, black politicians and participants in the civil rights struggle, many of whom compare the King memorial to the Kennedy Library in Boston and express anger and frustration that a piece of King's legacy, so vital to the black community, is being kept out of their hands.

"It's like saying the Pyramids should be in London," said Dick Gregory, the comedian, civil rights activist and friend of the King family.

A jury in Boston is deliberating the fate of the papers today.

Many believe that if the jury finds for Boston University, which is fighting to keep the 83,000 documents King gave to the university in 1964, the level of anger will rise to a genuine backlash.

"If there is a negative black reaction to Boston University, those people have to realize that's the price they pay," said the Rev. E. Randel T. Osburn, national administrator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, just down the street from the King memorial complex. "It will be a permanent mark against BU."

Mr. Osburn, who was on King's staff in the '60s, said Boston University's fight was "arrogant at best, racist at worst," a "rich white university that's taking a black man's papers." He argues that King "never could have imagined a center like we have here, with millions of people visiting in busloads each year," and that King's letter giving Boston University control of the papers must be reconsidered in that context.

There is widespread acknowledgment here that, strictly on legal grounds, Boston University is in a strong position to keep the papers, which the university views as the crown jewel of its special collections.

Boston University has built its case on a letter signed by King stating that the papers were Boston University's property in the event of his death.

Regardless, supporters of the King family say something larger than legalisms is at stake: allowing the black community to assume full ownership of the legacy of a man who is perhaps the central figure in 20th-century black history.

"Who's going to tell future generations what it was that he did? Just as the Kennedy Library exercises control over the Kennedy legacy, the King center wants to do the same," said Julian Bond, a leading civil-rights activist and history professor.

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